April Goehring looked like Minnie Mouse.
The kindergarten teacher at Turner Elementary School was trying to teach her young students remotely with computers not designed to do such work, adapting them by adding things like a camera and speakers.
When she spoke, the audio the children heard was a distorted high-pitched sound reminiscent of the cartoon character.
But thanks to federal funds from the CARES Act, students didn’t have to suffer for long. The town of Turner used a portion of its COVID-19 emergency funds to purchase new laptops, tablets and equipment for the school.
Communities across Oregon and the country faced unforeseen expenses as they responded to the challenges of the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, from getting students online to coordinating remote work for employees. and boards of directors.
They received a portion of the federal dollars from the CARES Act to help them pay off financial needs directly related to COVID-19. Cities in Oregon had varying caps on the amounts they could claim for reimbursement based on factors such as population, poverty, and housing instability.
The Statesman Journal and The Register-Guard polled seven cities in Willamette Valley using interviews, emails and public records requests to see how they spent the federal funds they received. Some cities provided information more readily, such as Turner, Springfield, and Stayton. Some, like Silverton, Detroit and Gates, gave partial answers or were unsure if they were still receiving money.
Most cities spent the majority on things like business grants – Mt. Angel handed out $ 34,500 in grants to 13 companies, or items related to COVID-19 like air purifiers and computer equipment to allow city staff to work remotely.
At least two also invested money in public schools that otherwise had no access to funds.
Turner used $ 36,680 of the $ 78,330 he received to purchase computers for students and teachers in the Cascade School District. Springfield spent $ 38,000 of the $ 2.4 million received to help with distance learning. Most of this was to update the Wi-Fi at City Hall, a spokeswoman said.
Laurie Taitano, a fifth-grade teacher, said that while the pandemic has interrupted in-person teaching, education has not stopped.
“Teaching always happens, and it goes very well when you have the right materials, and if your school doesn’t have it, it’s the children who suffer,” Taitano said.
“We like Turner, the town of Turner. The choice they made actually impacts us for years to come. If you think about it, a face mask today is thrown away when we’re done. But by giving tools to children and teachers… we continue to have that. ”
Technology, a problem for students
Students have struggled with technology throughout the pandemic, as have teachers.
While big cities and school districts had more funds to switch to distance learning, small towns like Turner had no additional funds.
According to city administrator David Sawyer, of the $ 78,330 in CARES funding spent by Turner, nearly half went to purchase 35 Chromebooks for students, 25 Surface laptops for teachers, a math and air cleaner follow-up program for Turner Elementary School.
The rest went to things like an ultraviolet disinfection airflow system for city hall, paid time off for COVID-19-related quarantines, and grants for affected businesses.
Eli Willis’ family had computers, but not enough for the two children. The fourth grader was one of the beneficiaries of the town purchase and used the computer for his homework. He also found a love for math games.
“In fact, I would say about half of our classes this year just had nothing,” said Brianna Shipman, a second-grade teacher.
“Their parents had cell phones, and that was about it, but you can’t access your Google Classroom on a cell phone. It’s even difficult on a tablet, especially if you’re in a house sharing it with three or four other siblings. It was a challenge.
Even when students started returning to school part-time in February, many students and teachers relied on equipment purchased by the city.
“There were many, many families who needed good equipment,” said Turner Elementary School principal Dan Petersen.
“When you have a family of two, three, four kids, it adds up quickly. And the kids have to be online at the same time, so it’s not like you can share one with the whole family. The parents were very, very grateful for the help.
Cities approach money differently
Stayton spent over $ 1,000 in federal CARES Act money to open a Wi-Fi hotspot in the parking lot of the municipal library.
Stayton received funding of $ 265,471, according to City Manager Keith Campbell.
The city has spent a large chunk of the money on changes that have become necessary due to COVID-19, such as computers and other equipment so that employees and city councilors can work or participate in meetings remotely.
He also purchased materials for his library so that he could offer curbside pickup and expand the digital collection.
“Each city approached it differently,” said Campbell.
Many cities and smaller government agencies used some of their money to organize meetings that allowed the public to continue to participate, even if only virtually.
In April 2020, Governor Kate Brown approved holding town halls by telephone or other electronic means, but many small communities had never done so and had neither the equipment nor the money for them. ‘buy.
In Detroit, city council considered spending the $ 5,000 federal money on microphones and a mixer so that its council meetings could be streamed online.
But before they could buy the equipment, a business association around Detroit offered to buy the audio system. On the eve of Detroit Mayor Jim Trett’s purchase, much of the city was leveled by the Labor Day wildfires.
Equipment is still seated at Uptown Music in Keizer.
City officials still plan to use the funds to make meetings more accessible. Even as COVID-19 restrictions relax, many Detroit residents are still scattered due to the wildfire.
“We’re going to set up a camera so we can broadcast the meetings, which I wanted to do,” Trett said.
Not enough to ‘plug the hole’
Springfield used about ¼ of the $ 2.4 million it received to update audio and visual equipment inside City Hall and make other changes to enable telecommuting.
The work will continue to benefit the city and residents once the pandemic ends, said Nathan Bell, the city’s chief financial officer.
“This will be used, even in the future, for public access,” he said. “Even once we return to City Hall for the budget process, there will be a remote access aspect to allow participation. ”
Springfield officials spent most of the $ 2.4 million the city received for the emergency operations center, Bell said. Just over $ 1 million was used to pay employees whose tasks have become “primarily dedicated to COVID-19,” according to data provided by the city via email and at the request of public records.
The second largest portion – $ 619,000 – went to “telecommuting capabilities,” such as updating the A / V system. Two other big chunks went to deal with homelessness and small business grants – about $ 243,000 and nearly $ 270,000, respectively.
Springfield has taken a “very conservative approach” when interpreting federal guidelines on how to spend federal dollars, Bell said, choosing to spend only on things directly related to the pandemic. The guidelines have become clearer over time, he said, but they never became “totally clear”.
The money the city got from the reimbursement was not enough to “fill the hole created by the pandemic,” he said.
The pandemic has caused a shortfall of more than $ 4.4 million, Bell said, from losses in tourism taxes and other sources to lower revenue from fees.
Even if there had been a “windfall,” he added, it would not have solved the city’s long-term revenue problems. That might have prolonged the day the city hits an unhealthy reserve level, he said, but Springfield still has a structural deficit.
“It saves us a little more time to find lasting solutions to our structural imbalance,” Bell said.