Administrators’ back-to-school wish lists will include some additional items come fall: face masks and cleaning supplies, more janitors, bus aides to check students’ temperatures, and more. All told, an average-sized district of 3,600 students across eight school buildings could spend an additional $490 per student or about $1.8 million annually on coronavirus control measures, according to a recent report by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) and the Association of School Business Officials.
The expense to retrofit schools for the pandemic could present an overwhelming burden that, without additional funding, could force many districts to stick with virtual learning instead of returning to face-to-face instruction. “When you escalate to large urban school districts the numbers are impossible in order to adhere to [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines,” AASA Executive Director Daniel Domenech told U.S. News & World Report.
Social distancing protocols in the CDC guidelines will drastically reduce both classroom and bus capacity. The rules require face masks for children as young as 3 years old. Disinfecting guidelines render playground equipment and shared materials effectively off-limits.
An analysis by the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union, said schools would need much more than the AASA estimate—about $2,300 per student in additional funding. That figure includes tens of billions of dollars in remedial support for students coming off a patchy spring semester.
Despite the gap between the two estimates, both groups recommend billions in additional federal money for schools to implement pandemic protocols. Even the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) agreed the government should provide more funding.
“Given that school systems cannot reasonably have been expected to plan for the current situation, state and federal officials must help provide the resources schools need to help weather the crisis,” wrote the AEI’s John P. Bailey and Frederick M. Hess. They stressed the need for flexibility in the face of student needs and budget concerns.
Ben DeGrow, the director of education policy at the conservative think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, agreed. He said states should reconsider old measures of success such as student attendance and instructional hours.
“Now is the time to let those things go and focus on giving more freedom to educators to help students meet their learning objectives,” DeGrow said. That freedom could bring fewer students into the buildings at a time, allowing for social distancing and reducing budget strain.
Meanwhile, school districts must budget for the upcoming year with little certainty about what coronavirus accommodations they will need or how much additional funding they will receive.
The coronavirus aid package gives $13.5 billion to K-12 schools, but a dispute over how to pay public and private schools has thrown even that funding into uncertainty. School leaders say they welcome the freedom to restructure educational plans for the COVID-19 era, but their budgets cannot handle a substantial influx of new costs.