BILLINGS — If the state government doesn't spend it on the state education budget, Billings School District 2 could see $12.8 million in additional federal coronavirus aid money this year, said Craig Van Nice, chief financial officer for the school district Monday.
“The big question mark is, is that $12.8 million true, new assistance for the district and it’s a new net $12.8 million, or could the Legislature, over the course of the next few months, potentially offset some of that money if they need to cover any general fund gaps in education budgets statewide?", Van Nice told trustees at the Monday board meeting.
Last year, the district received $10 million in federal relief money with $3 million coming from the federal CARES Act and $7 million allocated from the state. A portion of the first aid money had to be spent by Dec. 31, 2020. The new money has a deadline of September 2023 to be spent, Van Nice said.
Until district staff have a firm number on new aid money, they won't incorporate it into the budget, Van Nice said.
“Until we see how it’s all going to shake out in Helena, we’re not putting our stamp on any particular allocation amount yet," Van Nice said.
Superintendent Greg Upham said the district is looking to fund summer school opportunities and future remote learning. It's uncertain now if the pandemic situation in Yellowstone County will necessitate as robust of a remote learning platform next year, Upham said.
About 2,500 Billings students are enrolled in remote learning this year. Upham said the cost to offer both remote and in-person learning was about $5 million this year.
Trustees also approved an emergency policy requiring students, teachers and visitors wear masks while in the school buildings or at school events and established punishments for those who refuse to wear one.
The school day will not change much with the approval of the new policy. Students and staff are already required to wear masks in school, but the policy does give the board authority to keep masks on Billings students if Gov. Greg Gianforte rescinds the statewide mask mandate, which he has said he will do.
Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton advocated for students to keep wearing their masks, because it has worked to keep them in school thus far in the pandemic.
"I would really encourage all of our districts to do everything they can to keep that mask mandate in place. We are a ways away from the end of the tunnel. Vaccination offers the end of that tunnel, but we’re not going to be there by the end of the school year. I would hate to see our numbers start going up and kids missing school when we’ve got a model that’s worked really well," Felton said.
Felton said the other schools in Yellowstone County are in agreement to keep students masked until the risk of COVID-19 infection is tolerable.
Before school started in 2020, many in the community were skeptical of the 100-year-old, proven science of masking to prevent respiratory disease. Trustee Mike Leo made the comparison to someone about to undergo surgery and finding two of their doctors in the operating room not wearing masks.
"Are you going to risk that kind of infection in an operation room just because someone says they are not quite in agreement with scientific fact? I don’t think so. I think we need to continue to wear masks," Leo said.
Other community members thought it an impossible task to keep masks on a young student in kindergarten. Trustee Russell Hall said, "it's not been an issue at all," and shared an anecdote from a kindergarten teacher, saying one of her students was using the mask to store snacks.
"The teacher noticed that there was something in their facemask and looked down and (the student) said ‘look, all my animal crackers.’ She was storing them. The teacher said it was so brilliant, I’m not going to tell her no," Hall said.