By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Wisconsin received $158 million in federal COVID relief funding last spring to help school districts safely reopen schools. U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil wants to know what the state Department of Public Instruction has done with more than half of that money.
The question becomes even more pressing as we learn that Madison public school teachers appeared to be planning to fake COVID-19 symptoms to protest the return of in-person learning.
Steil this week sent a letter to DPI Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor seeking information on the status of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds allocated to Wisconsin. The Janesville Republican said, as of last Friday, less than half of the $158 million had been spent since the the CARES Act became law nearly a year ago.
The money is supposed to go to local education agencies (LEAs).
“This raises numerous questions as Congress is considering an additional $125.8 billion dollars in funding to ESSR (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund),” Steil wrote. “I strongly support reopening our schools safely and want to ensure that funds are being spent effectively.”
Steil asks: Why the delay in LEAs using the funds they’ve been allocated? And what can be done to make sure the money can be spent more quickly?
In December, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which delivered another $686 million school relief — $617 million of that money marked for local education agencies.
Steil reminded the DPI superintendent of the science, with study after study from communicable disease experts finding students should be back in the classroom.
“Congress has appropriated billions of dollars for schools to safely reopen, yet in states like Wisconsin, nearly one year later, millions of dollars have yet to be spent,” Steil said. “We must work to safely reopen schools today, not tomorrow or next year. Reopening schools is vital to our kids’ mental health, academic success, and allows working parents to get back to work.”
DPI spokesperson Chris Bucher said the agency is preparing a response to the congressman’s questions. But Bucher said DPI has time.
“It’s important to note that funding under the CARES Act for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund are available through September 30, 2022, and for ESSER II through September 30, 2023,” the spokesperson said. The statement suggests the lack of urgency that concerns the congressman.
The funding questions arise as Wisconsin’s teachers unions campaign to keep taxpayer-funded school buildings closed.
As Empower Wisconsin first reported Wednesday, Madison public school teachers were planning a “sick-in” to protest against the school district’s plan to resume in-person learning after nearly a year of failed virtual education.
The work action appears to have the tacit, if not official, approval of the teachers union.
Empower Wisconsin obtained an email from Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI) faculty representatives encouraging all MMSD teachers to feign illness and ditch their teaching responsibilities.
The email urged staff to report to the district before 8 a.m. Thursday morning that they had COVID-19 symptoms. A source with knowledge of the situation said there was a change of heart Wednesday evening, and now it looks like the work stoppage could happen on Monday, the first day teachers are to report to their buildings.
“I’m sure we all feel exhausted, or have consistent headaches, not really feeling our usual energetic selves. Are you picking up what I’m putting down here?” the email from the union rep states.
“We need them to get thousands of responses on the google forms. Flood them. We are encouraging you and your staff to join us all in solidarity to show the district that we do not believe it is safe yet,” the union reps’ message implores.
A Madison Metropolitan School District official told Empower Wisconsin the district has no comment at this time.