Districts try to plan for back to school as Congress weighs additional funding

One expert estimates schools nationwide need $50B in aid to reopen

Middle school teacher Brittany Myers, center,  protests with colleages outside the Hillsborough County Schools district office July 16 in Tampa, Florida. Teachers and administrators rallied against reopening schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  (Octavio Jones/Getty Images)
Middle school teacher Brittany Myers, center, protests with colleages outside the Hillsborough County Schools district office July 16 in Tampa, Florida. Teachers and administrators rallied against reopening schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Octavio Jones/Getty Images)
Posted July 21, 2020 at 6:30am

Tens of billions in additional funding for schools is poised to be a pivotal debate point as lawmakers craft another legislative package to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and experts say time is critical as districts race to finalize back-to-school plans.

Students are set to begin going back to school next month. Lawmakers in both parties say they plan to funnel more money to facilitate having students in the classroom, help schools adapt to distance learning or offset additional needs to adapt to the coronavirus era.

Districts have been announcing plans as the issue has become politicized in recent weeks. President Donald Trump threatened to withhold federal funding for schools if they are not fully reopened this fall, although many districts plan to teach students remotely or in a hybrid model at least at the start of the academic year.

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Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, estimated that schools need about $50 billion to help facilitate students’ return to the classroom.

“Speed is tantamount for this,” she said. “Many schools are already looking at the start of the school year in a few weeks and not having funds, I believe, has limited their ability to plan and prepare for what the fall could look like.”

House Democrats approved a $3 trillion bill in May that would provide $100 billion for education. Senate Republicans are poised to unveil their proposal this week, which is expected to be around $1 trillion.

Congress approved $13.5 billion for school districts in an earlier COVID-19 response law Trump signed in late March.

Groups' requests

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest teachers union, released an analysis Monday that estimated “the cost for accomplishing the fullest and safest possible reopening is $116.5 billion.” In the analysis, the union warned the education sector could lose 1.4 million jobs without federal assistance.

The union called for Congress to approve a bill by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that would provide $175 billion for K-12 education and another $135 billion for higher education.

Teachers' unions have pushed back on calls, including from Trump, to fully reopen schools this fall. Many school districts across the country, including San Diego, Los Angeles and Baltimore, have said they will begin the academic year with virtual classes. Other districts, like Fairfax, Va., and New York City, are planning a hybrid approach in which students will spend some time in the classroom and take classes virtually on other days.

The AFT and Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit Monday against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and other Florida education officials. The teachers oppose the state’s plan to have students in school full time in the fall.

The Council of Chief State School Officers said in a statement to CQ Roll Call that federal aid is needed to help “to cover costs to reopen schools safely, ensure students have access to technology, and address any learning loss that has occurred.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Consumer Brands Association have also individually petitioned officials to provide support for going back to school. The chamber asked Trump and congressional leaders to provide additional funds for schools, warning that teachers in some regions have begun receiving layoff notices, even though schools may need to employ more teachers this year to provide for social distancing. The group also urged additional support for child care centers.

The Consumer Brands Association said in its letter to Vice President Mike Pence that the administration should take steps to make sure schools have adequate cleaning supplies.

Matthew Blomstedt, Nebraska’s commissioner of education, said districts in the state used much of the funding provided in the law earlier this year to ensure that students had technology they needed for distance learning this spring. Other funds went toward maintaining contracts, such as for food, and for beginning to prepare to reopen schools.

“As difficult as it was to kind of close schools, we’re actually finding a huge amount of costs in opening and just getting teachers prepared for those particular environments,” Blomstedt said.

Other cost concerns range from acquiring enough masks and other supplies for schools, to scaling up schools’ digital capacity and professional development training for teachers, he said.

The state estimates it would cost approximately $500 per student to return to school, he added. Some districts are considering whether and how to provide “extra duty pay” to teachers who are pulling “double duty” this year.

Blomstedt said schools needed additional federal aid, but he was more concerned about not having it later in the academic year than immediately when it begins because of how the state’s funding process works, though he said that might not be the case for all states.

“I'm probably less worried about the front end of the year and more worried about the back end of the year,” he said, citing the timeline for state property taxes to come in and the expectation that schools would purchase masks and other protective equipment, but then may need to forego other expenditures later in the year.

“My out-year looks a little more daunting,” he added.