Cost of ensuring school safety complicates reopening plans

As school districts across the country decide how and when they can bring students back to campus safely, a major sticking point is emerging: the money to make it happen.

Keeping public schools for 50 million students and more than 7 million staff safe from the coronavirus could require more teachers and substitutes, nurses and custodians. School districts will need to find more buses to allow for more space between children and buy more computers for distance learning. They’ll need to buy sanitizer, masks and other protective equipment. Some are putting up plastic dividers in offices and classrooms.

While public health concerns are getting most of the attention, especially with the nation’s infections and hospitalizations rising, costs have become a major consideration. Many districts are hoping Congress will step in.

The Council of Chief State School Officers says safely reopening public schools could cost between $158 billion and $245 billion, while the American Federation of Teachers put the figure at $116.5 billion. The Association of School Business Officials International estimates that reopening will require additional spending equivalent to about 3.5% of districts’ normal budgets.

“If you don’t have this money, how are you going to afford PPE? How are you going to have cleaning every day?” asked Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a major union. “That’s why you’re going to see more and more districts, even when they don’t have surges, staying with remote learning.”

School officials in Los Angeles and San Diego, the two largest districts in California, said this week their year will begin with online classes only. Many others, including New York City, are planning to have each student attend class in person only some days while doing work online the rest of the time.

The school district in Columbus, Ohio, expects to bring back younger students in shifts while having high schoolers take all their classes online. But district spokesman Scott Wortman said those plans are not certain, and the ability to pay for measures needed to safely reopen will play a role in the final decision.

The district estimates its reopening costs at $100 million — nearly four times the previously approved federal funding that it expects to get.

Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles B. Pyle said school districts there will need more than the $282 million the state received in the previous congressional relief bill to safely reopen “and respond to the spikes that will inevitably occur during the year.”

In Georgia’s Bibb County School District, based in Macon, chief of staff Keith Simmons said cleaning materials, temperature-taking kiosks, masks and other materials could cost $750,000 to $1 million. But that does not include everything the district probably needs to do, he said.

“We’ve calculated the cost based on what we think we can afford, not based on what we need,” he said.

The district has pushed back its opening day from Aug. 10 to Sept. 10 to make adjustments in a state where cases have been rising. Up to 45% of students are choosing to start the school year by taking classes only remotely, according to Simmons. That should leave enough room for the remaining students to return to classrooms, he said.

Coronavirus aid will be the highest-profile item on the agenda when Congress returns next week, including how much money to make available for school districts.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, has scoffed at the $3 trillion overall aid package Democrats are calling for, but he has said funding education will be a priority.

President Donald Trump has said in recent weeks that schools that don’t reopen for full, in-person classes could see federal money reduced.

Congress has already approved more than $3 trillion in aid to address the coronavirus outbreak and economic fallout. That includes $150 billion for states, territories, large local governments and Native American tribes, plus more than $13 billion directed specifically to education.

On conference calls with governors and in a briefing this month, Vice President Mike Pence has been critical of states because only a small portion of the $13 billion — 1.5% as of last week — had been paid out. Chip Slaven, the chief advocacy officer for the National School Boards Association, said slow spending of that money should not keep Congress from providing more money to make schools safe for reopening. Districts are still trying to figure out how they can spend the money in accordance with guidelines set by U.S. Department of Education, he said.

Slaven said the federal government should send at least $200 billion to state education departments and school districts. That’s in line with what the Council of Chief State School Officers has called for.

“The whole point of the federal government is — when there’s a national emergency like this — is to step up to the plate with a plan, with resources and with help,” he said.

For schools in many states, high reopening costs are only one side of the coin. State tax collections plunged when much of the economy was shut in the spring. That had a trickle-down effect on school funding, typically the largest part of a state budget.

The Sioux Falls School District, the largest in South Dakota, estimates it will need $7.8 million for protective equipment, cleaning supplies, putting high-powered filters on ventilation systems and other items to make it safer to reopen school buildings

The district plans on using $4.1 million from earlier federal funding but is applying for other grants to make up the rest.

At the same time, the district has slashed $1.3 million from its regular budget to prepare for possible funding cuts from the state. District business manager Todd Vik said administrators canceled plans for building expansions and hiring 15 teachers and reduced planned salary increases.

“While we’re looking at cutting on one hand,” he said, “we’re looking at responding to the coronavirus and increasing spending in other areas.”

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Follow Mulvihill at http://www.twitter.com/geoffmulvihill

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Associated Press reporters Kantele Franko in Columbus, Ohio, and Stephen Groves in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, contributed to this report.

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