The Natrona County School District anticipates receiving $17.8 million in new federal COVID-19 relief funding, but how the district applies that remains to be seen.

Among the priorities would be applying that funding to keeping schools open and ensuring the safety of students and staff. according to a report that the district's board of trustees reviewed at its work session on Monday.

That funding comes from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriation Act (CRRSA) -- an extension of the original Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act -- that Congress passed and former President Donald Trump signed into law in December.

Specifically for education, it authorized the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund 2.

While the estimated amount of the federal funding is known, the state Legislature's actions are not.

The Legislature, which will begin an eight-day virtual session on Wednesday, faces a massive budget shortfall that initially would cut $100 million to education statewide, or about $13 million to the Natrona County School District.

The report said neither the timeline nor the amount of funding are known at this time.

So the trustees are looking at several ways to use the federal funding in light of those unknowns.

The district staff has initially recommended focusing some of that money to help students who have not been able to keep pace in their education because of virtual learning.

Keeping schools open and students safe would be a priority, too.

The district also could continue its programs under the first ESSER Fund that included spending on mental health services, professional development, technology and infrastructure.

Another option would be to use the $17.8 million as a "backstop" to potential legislative funding reductions to mitigate the impact of cuts on students and to avoid layoffs of personnel.

Complicating an already complicated situation, trustee Dave Applegate reminded the trustees that the district anticipates losing about 700 students. Because the state allocated funding in part based on student enrollment, the loss of that number of students would result in a reduction of $4 million.

Applegate also reviewed about $1.5 million in possible savings by reducing or eliminating some programs including the We Read program -- a partnership with the community including the Natrona County Public Library that provides one book a month for kindergarten through third grade students.

That committee looking at those cuts hopes to have made decisions on that at its next meeting, he said.

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