Big Sky Roundup

Arntzen: Biden administration’s rules for COVID-19 relief funding ‘burdensome’

By: - May 25, 2021 5:42 pm

Children wearing protective face masks sit in classroom for the first day of classes of the new school year at the GuthsMuths elementary school during the coronavirus pandemic on Aug. 10, 2020 in Berlin. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen submitted comments Monday to the U.S. Department of Education (USED) on its Interim Final Requirements (IFR) related to implementation of the American Rescue Plan Act’s Elementary and Secondary School Relief (ARP-ESSER) Fund, the Office of Public Instruction announced Tuesday in a news release.

In her comments, Arntzen emphasized the need to respect local control, particularly when it comes to what kinds of actions individual school districts are undertaking to keep their students safe, the news release said. Montana is set to receive over $382 million as part of ESSER III, the current round of funding authorized by the ARP Act. Previous rounds of ESSER funding totaled more than $210 million for Montana schools since March 2020.

“Once again, the Biden Administration is proposing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach that does not meet most Montana schools where they are,” Arntzen said in a statement. “Montana schools are prepared to be accountable, but Congress did not intend for the distribution of this funding to be micromanaged to the point of absurdity.  Instead of heaping on burdensome reporting for reporting’s sake, we should be allowing our Montana schools to innovate and focus on teaching the whole child.”

Arntzen noted in her comments that the IFR, as drafted, would interfere with Montana’s unique Indian Education for All requirement, OPI said. She pointed to the need for respecting Tribal sovereignty, and highlighted that the IFR “is focused on quantitative data that does not reflect the unique factors for children that live on Tribal sovereign land or their schools,” according to the news release.

Additionally, Arntzen pointed out the USED’s position on the “universal and correct wearing of masks” fails to take into account the rural nature of Montana schools and the unique circumstances of each school district, the news release said. Indeed, some Montana schools, through discussions with their local health departments, school boards, and other stakeholders, have already decided to rescind or amend mask and face coverings requirements and mandates in this school year. Arntzen believes they should not be penalized for doing what is in their community’s best interest.

As the Montana Public Education Center (MT PEC), a coalition of public education advocacy groups, has noted in their own comments on the IFR, “Montana’s public schools have operated more conventionally since March 2020 than schools in many other states,” the news release said. To reduce the burden on Montana schools, they recommend that the USED amend its IFR to declare that “any school district that provided in-person instruction to a majority of its students during the 2020-2021 school year is recognized to have safely reopened and provided continuity of services to its students and is recognized to have engaged in meaningful consultation with stakeholders.”

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