NORTHEAST OREGON — The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Union and Wallowa counties’ school districts and their students to travel a rugged and harmful path the past 13 months.
Funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, the latest COVID-19 relief package from the federal government, however, will help put them on the road to recovery.
The office of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, released figures from the Congressional Research Service that show school districts in Union County will receive about $7.2 million in funding from the act, and school districts in Wallowa County will receive about $1.8 million.
The funding will be provided on the basis of federal Title I guidelines, which include the percentage of people in school districts living below the poverty line. The money will come from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund within the act.
The La Grande School District is set to receive about $5 million in stimulus funding, and the remaining smaller eight school districts in Union and Wallowa counties will receive smaller amounts. The following is the estimated school district breakdown: Cove $389,000; Elgin $564,000; Enterprise $698,000; Imbler $211,000; Joseph $442,000; North Powder $561,000; Union $469,000; and Wallowa $720,000.
La Grande School District Business Director Chris Panike said the La Grande School District will be able to use its ARPA funding to continue operations while determining the impact of the pandemic.
He explained the district’s enrollment has fallen by 140 students since the pandemic hit in March 2020. The reasons, in part, could be that more students are in homeschool and that others have enrolled in online education outside the district.
“We don’t know if these students are coming back,” Panike said.
Panike said in the interim the school district does not want to make budget reductions because it would not be in a position to absorb the enrollment increase. He said the $5 million the school district will receive will prevent it from being in such a precarious position.
“We will be able to continue operating until we sort out the impact,” Panike said.
Declining enrollment has a big effect on the budgets of school districts because the state funding they receive is based on the number of students in the district.
Cove School Superintendent Earl Pettit said his district may spend its ARPA funding on remodeling work to create office space for professionals providing metal health, counseling and nursing services to students. The need of such services has increased because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pettit said the funding will not put school districts in a position to add additional staff because it will be provided just once, not annually. The Cove superintendent said he does not want his district to add a position or program for which there is not sustainable funding.
Pettit said the American Rescue Plan funding is putting school districts in an unfamiliar position. He explained that normally districts request funding for specific needs. This time, though, school districts are receiving money they did not request or had budgeted for and now must find the best way to spend the money.
Mark Mulvihill, superintendent of the InterMountain Education Service District, said the ARPA funding will help school districts get their students caught up socially and emotionally after enduring the COVID-19 pandemic in their homes taking classes online.
He said the education service district will use a portion of its ARPA funding to offer fifth-quarter summer programs for students, including outdoor school and parks and recreation activities, to get them back to interacting in person with classmates and educators.
Mulvihill said he does not want to see students receive in-person instruction, as many are now beginning to, only to next experience a summer with no activities with peers.
“They would be abruptly stopping after starting,” Mulvihill said.
To prevent this, he said he wants to use ARPA dollars to help schools offer a gentler “glide path slope” for students through which they will get accustomed again to in-person learning. The IMESD will offer academic programs and a credit recovery program for high school students who have fallen behind in the credits they need to graduate.