After four requests from Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, Gov. Steve Bullock has allotted $10 million to cover schools’ incremental transportation costs.

The money comes from federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds.

The Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) and the governor’s office are working together to develop a webinar to guide school districts in how to seek and receive this funding.

Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction made her most recent request to Gov. Bullock on July 14, 2020.

Superintendent Arntzen’s statement read: “As we thoughtfully and safely reopen Montana schools this fall, we are obligated to ensure schools have the resources they need to keep their students safe and deliver high quality education services. While I equitably distributed nearly $41 million in federal CARES Act funding to Montana school districts, it did not adequately cover the multitude of new expenses associated with safely reopening schools and transporting our Montana students.”

The state-approved funding will reimburse school districts for expenses incurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic that exceed usual transportation costs through December 30, 2020.

As school districts actively planned how to safely reopen schools this fall, the OPI consistently heard from administrators that there would be additional transportation needs due to social distancing, according to Arntzen. This was expected to add significant financial strain to district and county budgets and result in increased levies on property taxpayers, she noted.

In a letter to Gov. Bullock, Arntzen wrote: “The state and county pay roughly 14% each of pupil transportation costs with the district paying the remaining 72%. I request any additional pupil transportation costs for the 2020–2021 school year that are above what was paid in the 2019–2020 school year be covered by coronavirus relief funding.”

Made available to the state under the CARES Act, funds will only be spent to mitigate otherwise unanticipated expenses arising directly from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The governor designated the money specifically for transporting students to and from schools. In his written response to Arntzen — dated August 10, 2020 — Gov. Bullock stated this money should prevent school districts, counties, and the state from incurring school transportation-related costs because of the pandemic.

Martin Morales, Fleet Manager & Transportation Director for the Sidney Schools District, shed some light on the precautions that will affect the fast-approaching school year.

Students using Sidney Schools Transportation will be assigned a specific seat for their continued use. Hand sanitizer will also be available to students on buses.

Sidney Schools Superintendent Brent Sukut recently issued written guidance in the Sidney Public Schools Re-Opening Plan: “Parents are encouraged to provide transportation to school whenever feasible to reduce [COVID-19] exposure.”

In addition, these procedures will be followed by Sidney Schools:

• Transportation buses will operate when deemed feasible by school administration.

• Riders will be assigned seats and seated with family members when possible.

• There will be no more than two individuals to a [bench] seat.

• Windows will be opened for ventilation when possible.

• Sanitation of seats and handrails will occur between routes whenever possible.

• Masks will be required on the bus for all students and drivers.

Morales clarified that current bus routes are operating as usual for Sidney schools. No additional bus routes are reportedly needed at the moment to accommodate social distancing.

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