Joint Finance Committee designates funds to in-person schools

Republican members of the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) announced that they will use $68.6 million (10%) of federal funds designated for K-12 schools to reward schools offering in-person instruction. This money will be awarded to school districts based on the number of hours of in-person instruction provided during the 2020-2021 school year. This does not affect the $617.5 million of federal funding earmarked for schools based on the Title I formula.

The discretionary funds will be awarded as grants to schools following the end of the current school year.

Senator Duey Stroebel (R), one of the JFC members involved in developing the plan, said in the February 10th announcement:

“We want to incentivize and reward districts that are open for in-person education. The CDC has said it is safe to re-open schools. Today’s plan helps districts cover the extra costs associated with that during the COVID-19 pandemic. The formula takes into account the total number of in-person instructional hours a school offered for the 2020-2021 school year. That means schools that are still looking at re-opening can access this bonus funding if they return to in-person education during the current semester.”

Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) President Ron Martin responded with the following statement:

“This is another move by the do-nothing Republican legislative caucus to put politics over student safety and science. It’s been nearly a year since Representative Robin Vos and other Republican leaders have implemented any meaningful action on COVID. Just last week they voted to end the mask mandate in complete disregard to public safety. Now, when they get the chance to help students with federal funding for safety, they again refused to take the pandemic seriously. This plan turns a blind eye on COVID spikes in many communities – especially those with large populations of people of color.”

The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) had previously released a plan that called for granting a minimum of $100,000 per district and offering a minimum of $395 per pupil enrolled in privately run charter schools. WEAC urged the JFC to accept the plan proposed by the DPI.

The CDC has issued guidelines for reopening schools safely which includes the wearing of face masks and proper social distancing.

According to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, grades K-5 are especially in need of in-person instruction in order to receive a quality education. Middle school and high school students were found to be more adaptable to virtual learning environments.

Vaccination is likely to increase the safety of in-person instruction. Teachers, school staff, and students are in the next eligible group to receive the COVID vaccine in Wisconsin. Vaccination of this group is likely to begin this spring.

Republicans in the legislature determined that vaccination against COVID need not be mandatory, although employers can decide to make vaccination mandatory for their employees. Whether or not vaccination against COVID becomes a requirement for school children remains to be seen.

While COVID-19 tends to cause only mild symptoms in children, infected individuals who exhibit few or no symptoms are often more likely to spread the virus. 

When the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Governor Evers’ stay at home order, businesses were allowed to reopen without being required to follow any guidelines pertaining to public safety. Restaurants where indoor dining is allowed, bars, and gyms have all been identified as super spreader settings according to a study using mobile phone tracking. Children who are not exhibiting symptoms may easily transmit COVID that was spread in one of these settings, forcing a school to shut down and forcing teachers, students, and parents to quarantine. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services does not recommend testing students if they are not exhibiting symptoms.

Federal funding for K-12 schools can be used to cover pandemic related expenses incurred between March 30, 2020 and September 30, 2023. This includes equipment purchases, training and professional development relating to sanitation and limiting the spread of infectious disease, and mental healthcare services.