2020 will be a year I will never forget. In late-March, I still vividly remember someone saying, “we will still be doing this into the fall,” meaning navigating the uncertainties around education in the midst of a pandemic. I also remember thinking that the person was being dramatic because they obviously couldn’t be serious. I was hopeful that we would be back to business as usual come fall, with masks and Zoom meetings nothing more than a memory. While we certainly haven’t made it back to “business as usual,” I do not feel the same weight as I did that day just nine months ago. With the year 2021 officially upon us, I begin this month’s editorial with gratitude and optimism.
The challenges we faced last spring, summer, and fall all felt insurmountable, but the team pulled together and dug right in. Every facet of the organization had challenges to solve, but our leaders and their teams wasted no time in finding solutions. As you can probably imagine, many of the solutions came at a cost that I was not sure we would be able to afford. How would we get an electronic device in the hands of every learner, kindergarten through grade 12? How would we ensure that every learner had access to the internet from home? How would we purchase the necessary cleaning supplies and PPE to keep our students and staff safe? These questions and thousands of others flooded my mind.
Just when I was about ready to setup a lemonade stand to help cover these COVID-related needs, the district learned of relief coming through several federal grants. West Fargo Public Schools received a $1.7 million Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSR) grant, a $2.5 million Corps grant, and a $2.8 million Resiliency grant. The ESSR grant had greater flexibility than the others and could be spent throughout the 2020-2021 school year. The Corps and Resiliency grants had a deadline of December 30, 2020, so there was a great deal of strategy and planning to ensure we got the funds where they needed to be to provide the greatest impact on the learners’ educational experience and safety for both students and staff.
When strategizing how to spend these federal grant dollars, our first order of business centered around our mission statement, “Educating today’s learners for tomorrow’s world,” in a safe manner that met the expectations set forth by the state. One of those expectations was that every district had to offer a fully offsite instructional model for families (our Virtual Program). The offering of the Virtual Program increased inefficiencies in staff resources and required the hiring of additional teachers.
Another challenge the grant dollars helped us to address was the management of teacher and support staff absences. A large majority of our absences during the pandemic have been the result of household-related quarantines, which often meant that the staff member was offsite up to 24 days but was still well enough to teach. Use of the ESSR funds allowed us to hire floating subs and paraeducators to support students in the classroom while the teacher taught virtually.
Grant funds were also used to purchase masks, cleaning supplies, equipment, technology (including iPads and licenses), PPE (including N95 mask fit-testing kits), environmental improvements, mental health supports for students and staff, childcare for qualifying students on Wednesdays, meal preparation and distribution expenses associated with virtual learners and hybrid students, and contracted services for special education students who were unable to be onsite.
As the second largest district in the state and the third largest employer in the metro, we have much to be proud of and thankful for. We are proud of the educators, support staff and administrators who have been flexible and resilient throughout the pandemic. They believe children have the right to an education, even in a pandemic, and they made it happen.
We are thankful for our community’s understanding of our challenges and of their support and words of encouragement. Although there were times of frustration, our stakeholders understood that this was something we have never experienced, and hopefully never will again. We are also thankful for the federal funds that were sent our way to provide support without an additional burden on property tax statements in this challenging time. Our strong building and district-level leaders embraced this opportunity and strategized around the best use of the funds to provide the biggest impact.
These are just some of the reasons I am filled with gratitude and optimism for 2021. Our efforts are focused on building positive relationships, providing personalized learning for all learners, innovation and continuous improvement, and hope for the future. WFPS remains the #district of choice in North Dakota, now more than ever.