By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Teachers unions asked for CARES Act money to meet pandemic needs while Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said there is a lot of money available to schools already that has not yet been tapped.
The bipartisan legislative board advising Gov. Chris Sununu’s spending of $1.25 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds also heard Wednesday that more than 100 snowmobile clubs are “in a bind” trying to get the trails in shape for the winter.
An official for school nurses also addressed challenges as schools open in the next weeks and eviction concerns were expressed for the Upper Valley.
The Legislative Advisory Board met by phone Wednesday afternoon for four hours. There is about $230 million not yet allocated from the CARES Act, but Sununu has agreed to hold about $200 million in abeyance until the fall when there may be a COVID-19 spike and more funds will be needed.
Regional Rapid Tests
Lori Shibinette, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Human Services, gave an overview of the types of testing machines for COVID-19 and what additional funds might be used. She recommended that CARES Act funds be used to acquire about 25 Quidel Sofia rapid testing devices and materials to help schools and the public this calendar year.
She said in all about $395,000 will need to be available to buy kits and place them where needed and there could be rapid analyzers available regionally in community testing centers between October and November and more analyzers could be available after that.
About 18 regional centers are in hospitals across the state, but some are in primary care providers’ offices.
State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, a member of the board, asked to approve recommended funding to get the testing up and running, but Shibinette said she needed to go back to be sure that the funding amount is accurate and to ensure that it follows CARES Act rules.
Her main concern was to order the analyzers as they take the most lead time to procure. She said 25 could be ordered Wednesday.
State Sen. Chuck Morse moved to spend $50,000 on that effort. The vote was unanimous and now goes to the governor’s office.
National Education Association-NH President Megan Tuttle and NEA-NH Secretary/Treasurer Rebecca Butler, said more money than what Sununu has already allocated to open schools could be needed to keep kids, teachers, and staff safe from the transmission of COVID-19.
There is an estimate that it will be an additional $486 per student for the state’s 135,000 students. That’s about $65.6 million.
They said local schools are working furiously to ensure that there is adequate personal protective equipment available in schools, adequate HVAC maintenance to ensure fresh air in schools, rapid testing services for COVID-19, additional cleaning and substitute teaching costs in addition to the costs for teachers who must quarantine or isolate.
Once the existing funds are exhausted, the CARES Act money could be tapped provided it is allocated prior to the end of the calendar year, they noted.
They urged the bipartisan committee to draw down those funds now so they are available to help schools through the year.
Education Commissioner Edelblut gave the legislators an overview of what is happening with school reopening efforts and what funds are available to support the state’s schoolchildren.
Edelblut focused on the fiscal aspects of reopening and provided detail on the various funding sources from in-person instruction to hybrid models and distance learning. Keeping students and staff safe is job one, he said.
If a school district’s budget is insufficient to make expenditures to meet the needs due to COVID-19, the district can make an application to the Department of Education, he said.
To date, two districts have made requests and in both cases, the requests were not for additional funds but to use un-expended funds from their previous fiscal year, Edelblut said. Sununu has already allocated $37 million from the CARES Act for schools through the Department of Education and $34 million of that has gone directly to schools on a formula based on need in those communities. That money went out in May.
Edelblut said about $500,000 has been used so far. Money retained at the state level is going to the “I LEARN NH” technology investment collaborative with the University System of New Hampshire and the Community College system, reducing the license fees for Zoom virtual learning, Edelblut said.
He also noted state investment in the Kansas Learning Management System, a learning platform that ensures the effectiveness and quality of the online instructional product. In addition to that, CARES Act funds are being expended for broadband expansion across the state, Edelblut said and there is also the municipal relief fund to be tapped for school-related activities if they are mitigating the effects of COVID-19. Added up, this is $125 million.
Existing federal title programs in the districts, which involves traditional federal funding streams (include Title 1) totals $200 million available to districts. An additional $47 million came in from USDA to continue food supports, he said.
That means as much as $241 million is available from the feds, he said.
Also through the state legislative process, an additional $60 million one-time disparity aid was distributed across the state, he said.
Edelblut said he believes virtual learning or “VLAC” enrollment will go up because of the pandemic and there is an additional $12 million.
State Rep. Dick Hinch of Merrimack, Republican minority leader, said it sounds like there is plenty of money available to the districts for various purposes and “really the need is to direct them to the appropriate buckets available.”
Paula MacKinnon, RN, president of the New Hampshire School Nurses Association, said for the first few weeks of school, the state will be addressing the emotional challenges students have faced due to COVID-19 since last March and there are a lot of needs that are currently unknown.
Some schools don’t have registered nurses and the state requires they have a partnership with a local health-care provider, though the number of those is not known. Nurses do receive support from the New Hampshire Department of Education and the public health services division of the state Department of Health and Human Services.
MacKinnon explored some of the concerns that nurses will face as they return to schools. Some schools do not have enough room to keep students six feet apart. Some buses will be full though some people may choose to drive their kids back and forth to school.
The school nurses would like a statewide nurse coordinator at the Department of Education. They already receive a weekly Friday call with state health officials on COVID-19 on procedures and protocols.
The board also heard from leaders of the New Hampshire Snowmobile Association and from Chris Gamache, director of the state Bureau of Trails.
Gamache, who is the chief supervisor of the Bureau of Trails, said snowmobilers buy a decal from state Fish and Game annually for a license and a majority of that funding is returned to the clubs in the form of grants for trails and grooming.
About $1.5 million is spent annually and clubs provide a 30 percent match of funds. That will not be able to be achieved because of a lack of fundraising opportunity due to COVID-19, he explained.
He said it could have an impact on rooms and meals, the gas tax, and other state revenues if the interconnected trail system is not in working order.
All clubs are required to pay for their groomer insurance and then about $150,000 is spent statewide on groomer vehicle and maintenance and $150,000 in prepaid diesel contracts.
Dan Gould, executive director of the NHSA, asked for $574,622 from the CARES Act, noting that the traditional fundraising loss currently is $220,000 but that will likely go up before the snow flies. NHSA has put in for $105,000 from other federal programs strictly for the association and not for the clubs. He said more than 100 clubs that manage the trails are truly “in a bind.”
Given their charitable contributions to the city of Manchester, CARES Act money could be allocated to the Fisher Cats baseball team, D’Allesandro said.
“We do not want them to fold,” he said, recommending $500,000 from the CARES Act.
Senate President Donna Soucy said they have a significant economic benefit to the entire state and also urged support but Rep. Hinch said alternative financing has been provided by the board of mayor and alderman which would prevent them from folding.
“We have 100 examples of other organizations throughout the state that need some funding, too,” Hinch said. “I have a great deal of difficulty supporting the motion…because there is a viable alternative.”
The motion failed on a 4-4 vote. Supporting the motion in addition to the two senators were state Rep. Mary Jane Wallner and House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, all Democrats.
If masks are required for events of 100 or more people, should the state through the CARES Act help in supplying the masks for events? “My feeling is we should,” D’Allesandro said.
There is no mask mandate and the executive order is only for planned events over 100, Hinch said.
But D’Allesandro said Sununu has suggested everyone wear masks and said he believes masks over the nose are the best way we have to prevent the spread of “this awful disease.”
He moved that $500,000 be allocated for masks, but it failed for a lack of a second.
Upper Valley Evictions
Officials from the Lebanon-based social services agency LISTEN described to the board what they see as a possible pending foreclosure spike. They said funds are not being dispersed in time to forestall evictions.
Angela Zhang of LISTEN and Lynne Goodwin, a board member of LISTEN, said in Lebanon, 31 applications have been received and only seven have been approved in the nine weeks of the program.
Zhang told the story of “Josh” a single father who has not been able to go back to work. He is facing eviction. He started his application the first day it was available and has not heard anything back to forestall eviction.
Zhang said they are hearing dozens of similar stories each day, noting that many are not familiar with email and have limited access to technology.
“We need time and we need transparency,” Goodwin said.
The next meeting will be held on Sept. 17.