How South Dakota spent $14B of pandemic relief

The Sioux Falls School District received about $58 million of that money, which was used "to help kids and staff be safe and yet still try to get some learning done.”

Tracy Vik, principal of Sonia Sotomayor Elementary School in Sioux Falls, sat at a desk in a classroom where protective barriers were built to protect students in fall 2020. School districts faced major new expenses to keep staff and students safe during the pandemic.
Contributed / South Dakota News Watch file photo

This report was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a nonprofit journalism organization. See more at .

SIOUX FALLS — South Dakota received nearly $14 billion in federal COVID-19 funding from March 2020 through January, according to an internal state fiscal report obtained exclusively by South Dakota News Watch.

The document tallies the $13.84 billion intended to help governments, businesses, organizations and individuals survive and recover from a pandemic that killed 1 million Americans and more than 3,100 South Dakotans.

The federal funding came from six separate acts of Congress and was part of an overall $4.6 trillion in federal COVID-19 aid provided to states.

State government received about $4.2 billion, while the remaining $9.6 billion went directly to local governments, health care providers, the education system, businesses and individuals, according to Gov. Kristi Noem’s office


The specific answer of where the money went lies amid a complicated conglomeration of spending initiatives undertaken by the state, local governments and federal agencies. The effort sought to save lives, protect a fragile economy and provide a sense of normalcy to how people will live in a post-pandemic world.

The state report reveals that multi-million-dollar initiatives were enacted to diagnose and treat people with COVID-19; to reduce further infections and provide life-saving vaccines; to help businesses stay afloat and keep individual workers employed, fed and in their homes; to provide critical aid to low-income and elderly populations; and to help educate children and adults during a massive disruption in the public education system.

The state report notes that some of the stimulus money was allocated but has not yet been spent. Some funding may have shifted from one program or agency to another after it was received.

U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said the early days of the pandemic were a time of strong bipartisan efforts by Congress to provide states with the funding and resources necessary to battle one of the biggest crises in American history.

“The context was one of a national emergency,” he told News Watch. “And it was a matter of trying to save lives and at the same time to prevent a total economic collapse because of what was anticipated to be a very severe pandemic.”

Where the money came from

Here is South Dakota’s share of the six major COVID-19 stimulus funding packages, according to the Congressional Budget Office and the state of South Dakota:

  • $5.85 million of the $8.3 billion Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Appropriations Act, March 6, 2020
  • $194 million of the $192 billion Families First Coronavirus Response Act, March 11, 2020
  • $8.74 billion of $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), April 24, 2020
  • $64.3 million of the $483 billion Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, March 27, 2020
  • $1.1 billion of the $1.4 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 ($900 billion for COVID), Dec. 27, 2020
  • $3.8 billion of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, March 11, 2021

Where the money went

Here is a summary of how much federal COVID-19 funding flowed into 14 separate state agencies and hundreds of businesses, community agencies and local relief efforts, as of January:

  • Local programs: $8.8 billion (grants and loans to medical providers, small businesses, employees, community groups and local agencies, etc.)
  • Bureau of Finance and Management: $2.9 billion
  • Department of Education: $675.1 million
  • Governor’s Office of Economic Development: $488.8 million
  • Department of Social Services: $289.1 million
  • Department of Health: $282.1 million
  • Board of Regents/Technical Education: $162.3 million
  • Department of Transportation: $160.1 million
  • Department of Public Safety: $16.9 million
  • Department of Human Services: $16.5 million
  • Department of Labor and Regulation: $16.2 million
  • Department of Tourism: $6.8 million
  • Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources: $1.1 million
  • Secretary of State: $3 million
  • Unified Judicial System: $99,500
  • Total: $13.84 billion

Noem declined a request for an interview but through her spokesman said the state used the federal stimulus money “wisely” to aid the state during the pandemic.
Spokesman Ian Fury said in an email to News Watch that the governor approached use of federal pandemic funding in a conservative fashion. She rejected former President Donald Trump’s offer of extended unemployment benefits for state workers in August 2020 and also sent back more than $80 million in rental assistance.


“We focused on solving long-term problems with one-time investments rather than creating new government programs,” Fury wrote. “We are confident that we utilized that money more wisely than other states would have.”

Relief for Sioux Falls schools

The state K-12 public education system was hit with an unprecedented crisis when the COVID-19 pandemic struck midway through the second semester of the 2019-20 school year.

Kirk Zeeck, director of federal programs and language immersion for the Sioux Falls School District.

In mid-March 2020, as the coronavirus began to appear in South Dakota, Noem declared a state of emergency, ordered state employees to work from home and instructed public schools to shut down.

The closure put school districts, teachers, staff and students in a tough spot. Across the state, administrators and educators worked together to quickly develop a system to conduct remote instruction of students to close out the 2019-20 school year.

With nearly 24,000 students, 1,800 teachers and nearly 40 instructional buildings, the Sioux Falls School District had two main objectives, according to Kirk Zeeck, director of federal programs and language immersion for the district.

“We took steps to help kids and staff be safe and yet still try to get some learning done,” he said. “It definitely wasn’t like the traditional classroom setting prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In total, the South Dakota Department of Education received about $675 million in federal pandemic relief funds, according to the state fiscal report. Most came through three rounds of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, which allocated about $595 million to public schools across the state.

The Sioux Falls district received about $58 million of that money, which was used the past three years and into this school year for a variety of efforts to keep schools and students on track, Zeeck said.


Initially, some money was used to accommodate remote learning, including buying laptops for all teachers and students and upgrading computer white boards in classrooms to reach both in-person and remote learners, he said.

The district also hired 14 reading specialists in elementary schools to help students catch up after the 2020 shutdown and added a summer academy program with the same goal.

In middle and high schools, additional teachers and educational assistants were hired to boost learning. New counselors helped students who suffered social or mental problems.

Federal money also paid for safety barriers in schools to block the spread of the coronavirus and for an upgrade of air filtration systems to make schools safer from all airborne diseases.

The federal money was critical because all those needs weren’t budgeted, and the district worked hard to use the funding wisely, Zeeck said.

“I think (in the end the) district did very well to help determine the best way to utilize those funds to maintain safety and help kids grow academically,” he said.

‘Erred on the high side’

Rounds said the congressional funding packages generally followed a timeline that addressed four major needs during the pandemic:

  1. The initial emergency funding was aimed at bolstering capacity and access to the health care system that was diagnosing and treating COVID-19 patients.
  2. The second package provided money directly to help individuals, families, businesses and the national economy survive a potential “meltdown.”
  3. Congress then shifted its focus and funding to Operation Warp Speed, which provided $10 billion to seek a cure for COVID-19 and vaccines to limit its spread.
  4. And finally, later funding packages including the Paycheck Protection Program, helped keep businesses and employees afloat over a longer time period.

Rounds said Trump and Congress allocated funding to states and allowed some leeway on how money was spent on the local level, though Rounds argued for even more flexibility. Overall, federal lawmakers wanted to be generous in funding programs and at times approved supplemental funding efforts where need was demonstrated, he said.
“If anything, we erred on the high side in terms of authorizing resources,” Rounds said. “There was a concern if we did nothing, there was a concern we could lose 5% of our population.”


Bart Pfankuch is the content director for South Dakota News Watch. A Wisconsin native, he is a former editor of the Rapid City Journal and also worked at newspapers in Florida. Bart has spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and writing coach. Contact Bart at

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