Missouri officials are gathering information to determine how to spend the remaining CARES Act funding.
The CARES Act Funding working group heard testimony from state departments and organizations last week as they decide how to allocate the federal aid.
Education resources, economic development and COVID-19 testing were among several funding concerns.
The working group will use information from the meeting to make recommendations to Gov. Mike Parson on how to best allocate the funds.
Under the CARES Act, Missouri received over $2.3 billion in federal aid for COVID-19 related expenses, including special provisions for St. Louis and Jackson counties.
Parson previously allocated a quarter of the remaining funds to local governments. Health care services also received financial assistance from CARES, leaving over $1 billion for future aid.
Education funding was a major point of discussion, including access to online learning platforms and reliable internet connections outside of schools.
“We’ve know there’s been a digital divide in the state with individuals that have internet and those that don’t,” said Jeff Falter, the chief data officer for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“The pandemic has really shined a light on this connectivity gap.”
Falter shared a survey his department conducted that estimated 23% of elementary and secondary students in Missouri are without internet access and that affordability was the main reason why.
After Missouri schools transitioned to remote learning in March, many districts began extending their Wi-Fi to the community and sending hot spot devices to students. School districts have accrued additional costs as a result, said Falter.
DESE has begun working with other state departments to provide webinars to districts about various solutions, such as working with internet providers and creating Wi-Fi hot spots for students.
However, Falter emphasized the need for low cost internet access in Missouri.
“Distance learning is going to be a way of the future,” said Falter. “The digital divide has created inequities and learning loss for students and citizens, and an increase in broadband access is needed to solve this concern.”
Higher education institutions also faced challenges during the switch to online learning. Zora Mulligan, the Missouri commissioner of higher education, said that federal funding could assist universities in preparing for the fall semester.
While lack of internet and computers were reported as a challenge for university students and staff, Mulligan said campuses also experienced strain while trying to provide online classes to students.
“Institutions worked really hard, as did students, to figure out ways to make it work during the spring semester,” said Mulligan. “But if this is to be a longer term strategy, we’ve got a lot of additional investment that we’re going to need to make.”
Mulligan said that universities have unmet financial needs costing around $54 million.
Parson has previously cut funding from education due to COVID-19 budget restrictions and plans to do so again in the near future.
The working group heard testimony that emphasized the importance of helping employers safely reopen their businesses. This included increased guidance on social distancing rules and additional personal protection equipment.
Daniel Mehan, the president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, also said additional workforce development would be crucial in the future.
“Not every job is going to return exactly as it was and a lot are going to be gone,” said Mehan. He said developing more apprenticeship and internship in Missouri could help people find new jobs while also earning money.
In addition, Missouri’s tourism division has been hit hard during the pandemic. Stephen Foutes, the director of the Missouri Division of Tourism, said that around one third of employees in the tourism industry have filed for unemployment and that $2.16 billion in spending has been lost since February.
Several groups advocated for expanding COVID-19 testing, as Missourians return to both school and work in the future.
Randall Williams, the director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said that funding for testing in the future is crucial as the state’s economy slowly reopens.
This has remained a top priority for Parson and officials, as they plan to conduct more comprehensive testing across Missouri.
In the future, Williams said money and supplies will be needed to continue this type of testing.
Mehan also emphasized the importance of access to more testing, especially as the economy continues to open through the rest of the year.
“Businesses want to be proactive in doing this, and a centralized testing program would be very beneficial,” Mehan said.
Editor's Note: Previous versions of this story incorrectly identified Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. We regret the error.