MESABI EAST — The coronavirus was unexpected. Businesses, governments and school districts didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, but are now expected and required to provide services unlike never before.

On Monday, the Mesabi East School Board approved three new hires including a COVID-19 Clerk at 36.25 hours a week, and two janitor/bus drivers at 40 hours.

The COVID clerk is a “person at the main entrance that screens all guests coming into the building,” explained Superintendent Gregg Allen over email Thursday. “The clerk also is the point of contact when parents come to school to drop off items for their students such as books, iPads, lunch, etc.”

Allen then explained the janitor/bus driver positions.

“It is almost impossible to find bus drivers. This position is a full-time year long position with full benefits. By combining the position the district has attracted two people willing to do the job.”

Due to COVID, hand railings and door knobs need to be cleaned frequently and these employees will do so as part of their janitorial work.

The coronavirus has resulted in new hires, purchasing of new personal protective equipment (PPE) and extra cleaning supplies across the state. To pay for these unexpected expenses, area school districts have received emergency funding.

For Mesabi East, that includes: $129,124 from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), $11,939.81 from the Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER), $247,481.42 from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Relief Funds for Back to School. Additional funds are being sought from ESSER and St. Louis County Community Funding.

“To clarify, the funding revenue that has been awarded is $388,545.23,” stated Pam Zahn, the Mesabi East Finance Officer on Wednesday. “We draw those funds as expenditures are incurred. The $388,545.23 will cover the items listed under both funding categories on the spreadsheet summary.”

As the money is needed, the school district will utilize these funds, but some are required to be used by the end of 2020, while others can be used through 2022.

“The amount of money that needs to be spent by the end of the year is the CARES Relief revenue which is $247,481.42,” Zahn said. “The other two funding streams total $141,063.81 and can be spent through 2022.”

Expenditures Proposed by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) for the CARES, ESSER and GEER funds include: distance learning instructors, before and after school care providers, COVID-19 clerk, COVID-19 coordinators, PPE supplies, distance learning stipends, upgrade technology devices and implement necessary hot spots.

“One position is directly related to COVID, the COVID-19 clerk. This position will be covered both with ESSER and CARES Relief fund monies. It is a slightly less than full-time position and will have pro-rated benefits,” Zahn said. “The other positions (Transportation/Janitorial) are both full-time positions and are covered by the General Fund. Depending on their duties, we may have the opportunity to allocate a portion of their salary/benefits to the COVID funding streams.”

MDE recommends these funds be used for necessary expenditures incurred due to COVID-19, such as PPE, physical modifications and additional staffing. “This includes programmatic expenses related to COVID-19 such as increasing food access, food shelves, meal delivery and mask distribution for community members,” stated the financial summary provided to the school board on Monday, noting MDE recommendations.

Specific MDE recommendations include: expanding technology access, including Broadband, hotspots and devices for students; summer school programing including increasing staffing to reach a student to teacher ratio of 6:1 and transportation; assisting with coordinating the response to the coronavirus; maintaining continuity of operations and services; supports students impacted by the virus or the public health response.

COVID has also cost the school district money, unexpectedly. Zahn said she expects a first draft of a revised FY20-21 budget in November and that the district is “closely monitoring” its General Fund expenditures.

The unexpected cost of COVID is resulting in a very tight budget for 2020-2021.

“If COVID-related expenditures continue, it is probable that we will need to seek additional funding sources and may need to cover a portion of these expenses with our General Fund balance,” Zahn added in an email Thursday, “At this time, we do not need to go to the voters for either a referendum or levy.”

Allen cautioned that a post-pandemic district might look slightly leaner.

“Mesabi East has been frugal with the COVID funds,” he said. “However, there will be a point where the cost of PPE and staff might have to come from the general budget. When the pandemic is over, some of the positions might be eliminated.”

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