In order to adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention safety recommendations for reopening, school districts will be forced to spend nearly $2 million per district that they hadn’t budgeted for – a cost so prohibitive that some are now scrapping plans for in-person classes entirely this fall.
“There are some saying, ‘It’s early, but I have to tell you, I don’t see how we could possibly open without additional funds,'” Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, says. “It’s becoming an overwhelming problem and many districts are considering returning to distance learning.”
The cost analysis from the superintendents organization and the Association of School Business Officials International shows that in some cases school districts can expect to spend an additional $490 per student in order to cover costs associated with purchasing hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and other cleaning supplies, gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment, hiring additional custodial staff and nurses, and more. The additional expenses for an average school district of about 3,700 students total $1.8 million.
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“The $1.8 million is for an average school district,” Domenech says. “When you escalate to large urban school districts the numbers are impossible in order to adhere to CDC guidelines.”
The estimate comes amid statewide budget cuts that have already or are likely to put a 10% to 25% dent in school budgets for the upcoming academic year, with some cuts as high as 35% already expected for the 2021-22 school year.
Los Angeles Unified School District and five other large urban districts in California have already notified Gov. Gavin Newsom that a projected $7 billion budget cut would dash all hopes of opening in time for the fall semester.
“It’s impossible to do,” Domenech says. “It’s becoming an overwhelming problem.”
The biggest ticket items associated with reopening in line with CDC guidance include hiring additional school personnel: A 3,700-student school district should expect to spend an additional $448,000 to hire more custodial staff to keep up with frequent cleaning recommendations, an additional $400,000 to ensure one nurse for each school and an additional $384,000 to hire one aide per school bus to screen student temperatures before they board.
Also cost prohibitive is the additional $169,000 to resume before- and after-school child care with proper social distancing and cleaning protocols, as well as the additional $148,000 to provide disposable masks for the estimated 30% of students who won’t bring them from home.
The biggest concern of most school superintendents as they plan for how to reopen safely is the cost, as well as the logistics, associated with running buses at 25% capacity to comply with recommended social distancing guidelines. And the cost analysis from the associations deems it nearly impossible because it is cost-prohibitive.
“Bus fleets would need to quadruple in size to safely transport 100% of students under COVID-19 circumstances, which is financially unfeasible for districts,” the analysis reads.
Shane Hotchkiss, the superintendent of Bermudian Springs School District in York Springs, Pennsylvania, agrees.
“Right now, with what CDC recommends, it’s just not possible to run a 72-passenger school bus for 12 kids,” he says. “We have 3,000 kids. I don’t know how that would work.”
But Bermudian Springs is luckier than most school districts of its size. It has a rainy day fund balance of $5.9 million that it’s been slowly draining over the last decade. It could weather a $1.8 million hit, though it would mean that the fund would be depleted by the 2021-22 school year instead of the currently projected 2022-23 school year.
“We’ve worked really hard to have a fund balance,” Hotchkiss says. “Had we not done that, we’d be bankrupt now. So even if it’s $200,000 more, that’s still $200,000 more that we weren’t planning for that we still have to spend.”
Hotchkiss says that he’s currently working to purchase sanitizing air misters, new trash cans that open automatically and more disinfectant wipes, but he hasn’t begun budgeting costs to provide masks and gloves to teachers and students because he doesn’t want to allocate that money if he doesn’t have to.
“I still don’t know what August and September is going to look like for bringing kids back,” he says.
With President Donald Trump pressing governors to reopen schools in order to get the economy back on track, Domenech says his biggest fear is that schools will be pushed to open despite not having the proper supplies and protections in place, leading to an outbreak that could be more detrimental to K-12 education than what transpired in March, when schools shuttered for more than 55 million children in the U.S.
That’s potentially the scenario playing out in real time in Israel, where nearly 10,000 students and teachers are now in quarantine after returning to school about two weeks ago.
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“What superintendent wants to be in the position of opening schools and then having it shut down because of rampant infections?” Domenech asks. “No one wants to be in a position of endangering the lives of students and staff.”
Congress has already appropriated $13.5 billion to help stem the financial impact of the coronavirus on K-12 schools, but Domenech and other education officials say there’s no way to safely reopen many of them without additional federal resources.
“There is an answer to this,” David Lewis, executive director of the Association of School Business Officials International, says. “We need round four of funding and we need the federal government to step in. To keep our economy going we have to have the schools open. It’s going to take the federal government to step in and say we are ready to go.”
Dozens of national education groups, including the teachers unions, civil rights groups and organizations that represent state chiefs, superintendents and principals have requested an additional $175 billion in federal funding, not only to help pay for things like cleaning supplies and protective gear, but also to prevent an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 teacher layoffs expected as a result of budget cuts and to provide internet access for the millions of children who still lack a connection at home.
Despite the wide acknowledgement from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that the economy cannot fully reopen unless schools reopen, Congress and the White House so far seem disinterested.
The newest round of funding passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last month, the so-called HEROES Act, includes $100 billion for both K-12 and higher education. But Senate Republicans have no plans to consider the $3 billion legislation, which they call “a liberal wishlist.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has said any additional relief package will be smaller than the $2 trillion CARES Act.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday about what it will take to reopen the country’s public schools safely.
“There is a disconnect with the reality of what we’re saying needs to happen in order to get back to school and what it’s going to cost,” Lewis says. “The economy can’t keep going on a consistent level if all of a sudden we have a spike in children getting sick and then we have to start all over again.”
“Nobody is saying we’re never going to start again, we’ll do it,” he says. “But parents won’t send their kids if they don’t feel safe. Around the country right now, school districts are polling parents. Would you send your kids back to schools? Done the right way and paid for, people will. Done the wrong way, people won’t and that’s a huge problem.”