The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) issued new guidance on Thursday on how schools can make staffing adjustments during distance learning in cases where fees generate a portion or all of the revenue. They are no longer required to pay fee-based program staff.
Schools are generally directed to continue to pay contractors for services like special education and transportation, even if these services are not being used as planned due to COVID-19, but the contractors also would need to agree to continue to pay their staff.
MDE’s call with school superintendents on Thursday covered a series of key updates, including:
- Schools are no longer being required to pay fee-based program staff.
- Paying contractors is generally directed.
- What’s covered for meals has changed, effective April 1.
- Child care workers have priority for COVID-19 testing, but it’s not guaranteed.
- Mental health will be the focus of the Tuesday call and superintendents can invite counselors and social workers to join.
See guidance and more details on each below.
Returning “Relatively Slim”
This call came immediately after Gov. Tim Walz provided an update on the state’s COVID-19 situation and was less than optimistic about students returning to classrooms this school year, calling it “relatively slim.”
Other schools in the nation have already announced they will remained closed to students through the end of the year and provide distance learning. “I think it’s a relatively strong possibility that that will happen here, too,” Walz said.
Gov. Walz acknowledged that this is hard on high school seniors and other students who are missing out on their sports seasons and other major school events. If social gathering does not resume in time for events like prom and graduation, Deputy Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said MDE will work with school districts to try to find creative ways to recognize events.
On Wednesday, the governor announced that the 2020 Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener in Otter Tail County has been postponed until next year due to COVID-19.
The governor will host his State of the State address on Sunday at 7 pm and is expected to provide additional updates.
- He will deliver this postponed address alone with a remote camera.
- You can watch it via YouTube Live or participating media outlets.
This will mark the first time since 2002 with Jesse Ventura that the governor has delivered the address from the Governor’s Residence in St. Paul. Walz continues to be quarantined to the Governor’s Residence due to contact with a person with COVID-19.
Fee-Based Program Staffing
Deputy Commissioner Mueller said Thursday that the executive order does not preclude school districts or charter schools from making budget-based layoffs of staff and administrators for programs where dedicated funding streams don’t exist.
- This needs to be in accordance with applicable local labor agreements.
- Districts and charter schools should consult their attorneys for questions about compliance with employment contracts and with questions about unemployment compensation.
During the Q and A with superintendents on Thursday, Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker was asked about programs with mixed funding sources like Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) that have aid, levy and fees. She advised schools to adjust administrators and staff based on local labor agreements, but the adjustment cannot fall below the dedicated funding sources.
MDE is generally directly school districts and charter schools to pay contractors for scheduled services.
- This could include special education services and transportation, even if these services are not being provided or have been changed to address the emergency.
- Payment is contingent on the contractor continuing to pay their workers.
- Schools could base payments on weekly average invoices that they have incurred during this year or on the contract rates for the services that were to be provided on scheduled school days.
- The intent of the executive order is that no person involved in providing education or transportation to Minnesota students with IEPs is harmed during distance learning planning or the distance learning program.
However, when Commissioner Ricker was asked whether a charter could cancel its transportation contract because it had a cancellation clause, she said she was not going to interpret their contract for them. They needed to contact their attorney.
What is notable is that she did not say that the school needed to continue to pay the contractor.
School districts with less than 50 percent FRE are considered closed Summer Meal Programs, if they deliver meals to pick-up sites. This started April 1.
- Districts need to count all meals picked up for reimbursement.
- When delivering meals to the door, districts need to keep the FRE count separate from the for fee count.
- Districts, at this time, will only be reimbursed for the FRE count.
MDE is seeking a waiver so door-to-the-door meals can be treated like pick up sites, but has not yet received the waiver. In March, there was not this distinction. All meal delivered in March will be reimbursed.
MDE recommends distributing FRE meal applications along with the meals as family income may be changing significantly and districts FRE percentage increasing significantly.
Meal pattern waivers can be applied for and granted only after food programs experience food shortages and MDE verifies.
- Districts cannot be given approval for meal pattern variance in case they experience food shortages.
- Waivers cannot be given in advance.
Child Care Workers & Testing
EO-19 does give child care workers priority for testing for COVID-19 should they show symptoms. However local medical authorities determine based on symptoms and testing supplies whether child care workers will be tested. EO-19 provides priority, it does not guarantee testing.
Questions were raised regarding the Governor hinting distance learning may continue and affect prom and graduation.
- No answers were forthcoming on when such a decision would be made.
- Deputy Commissioner Mueller cautioned we need to be aware of what is coming down the road, and we need to be realistic in our approach to the situation and be respectful in local decision making.
Questions were raised about students’ families’ mental health.
- MDE plans to focus Tuesday’s call on mental health.
- School superintendents may invite counselors and social workers to join the call.
- If district staff are concerned about student safety, they are mandatory reporters and should not wait until Tuesday to initiate reporting procedures.
MREA developed a series of guides to help schools respond and plan for the spread of COVID-19:
- Distance Learning: Guide to Communicating with Families
- Distance Learning: Putting It All Together
- Steps to Respond & Communicate
- How to Plan for Distance Learning
Stay apprised of resources and news on COVID-19 for schools at: MREAvoice.org/covid19