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July 10, 2020

Schools Face Huge Hurdles in Reopening Safely, Federal Aid Falls Short

Keeping students and school staff safe should be a top priority across the state. While Gov. Northam permitted schools to open in a phased approach, and guidance has been given to school districts from the Virginia Department of Education and Department of Health, the fact remains that even though many of Virginia’s public schools are set to reopen in around 60 days, they may not have the resources to do so safely. Recent estimates show reopening costs exceed current available federal aid and state funding remains in doubt as state leaders have yet to finalize the budget for the upcoming school year.

When schools open, whether it is in the fall or at a later date, it will be critical for federal or state aid to help local divisions fill these funding gaps. Otherwise, schools in the highest poverty areas of the state will be woefully under-resourced to meet the state’s most recent reopening guidance – putting students, teachers, parents, and the larger community at risk.

Virginia’s guidelines for reopening change almost every aspect of a typical school day. Buses, which usually are filled with students, are supposed to operate with at least 3 feet between each passenger. Physical distancing is also supposed to take effect inside the school building, meaning crowded cafeteria halls, classrooms, and recess won’t look the same until the pandemic is over. Daily health screenings are supposed to be conducted if possible, and school cleaning will need to be even more thorough, especially in buses and classrooms. These measures are just some of the significant changes that schools will be expected to undergo, coupled with others such as staff training and the potential for new schedules, in order to follow state guidance. 

Schools could go beyond state guidance to match measures taken in other countries which have reopened their schools. For example, all students could be provided masks, or at minimum, masks could be provided for students who cannot afford one or forgot to bring one. Signs or floor markers reminding students to distance themselves could be deployed, and schools could increase distancing from the state-recommended 3 feet to the CDC-recommended 6 feet.

To be even more thorough, schools could hire nurses or health professionals, and additional personal protective equipment (PPE) for school nurses could also be provided. It will also be important to address mental health concerns for students as they return to school from a long, and likely stressful, time away from school. These health aspects of reopening are critical as is academic intervention to make up for lost instructional time over the spring and summer, which according to the Council of Chief State School Officers, would cost anywhere from $86 to $173 billion dollars nationwide.

Schools are expected to undergo essentially a transformational shift and resources will be essential for that shift to be implemented successfully. Estimates on additional costs to reopen vary significantly, but they go far beyond the federal aid that has been allocated for schools. While a thorough estimate for reopening has not yet been made publicly available on the state level, there have been calculations on the national and local levels, which can give us a frame for what it may cost to the state as a whole. 

Prince William County’s School Board Chair requested $42.5 million in additional funding from the Board of Supervisors in order to purchase PPE, pay bus drivers and janitors overtime, and install plexiglass throughout their buildings, among other things. Their estimate for additional costs is equivalent to $460.60 per student. Using this number on the state level, the cost would be an additional $597 million to reopen safely – on top of what schools already need. 

An estimate from The School Superintendents Association (AASA) and Association of School Business Officials (ASBO), factors four categories into their cost estimate: adhering to health and disinfecting guidelines, hiring new staff, providing PPE, and providing transportation and child care. Their estimate calculates the additional cost of reopening in an average district at $496 per student, meaning the additional cost to reopen safely statewide could total in excess of $630 million. 

An even more comprehensive estimate from American Federation of Teachers (AFT), factoring in the hiring of more staff to accommodate physical distancing, addressing the digital divide, and remedying the long-standing shortage of school health professionals puts the cost of reopening Virginia schools at almost $3 billion dollars.

Bar graph comparing CARES Act Funds for K-12 education at 270.2 million to the most modest estimates of what it will take to safely re-open Virginia's schools -- $597.9 million and $630.8 million - and the American Federation of Teachers estimate of what reopening will cost: $2,97 billion.

Even though there is a broad range of estimates, it is indisputable that reopening schools safely will require significant resources This need contrasts sharply with what has been provided. In total, only $272 million from the CARES Act has been allocated specifically for K-12 education in the state, with only $214.7 million of that going directly to school divisions.

There are several possible funding solutions that would allow schools to reopen and help mitigate risk for students, faculty, and staff. On the state level, Virginia could allocate funds from the general Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) for educational costs, as Arizona and Colorado have done. This would greatly increase school resources and assist localities’ budget planning over the course of the year.    

Similarly, the state health department or emergency management department could purchase materials such as PPE or masks specifically for schools, like in California and Illinois. The state could use CARES Act funds for this, but even if it used another source, it would greatly decrease the cost burden on local school divisions – addressing one of the many facets of reopening that needs to be considered. In the special session this summer, state lawmakers could also restore their original K-12 budget allocations, which would benefit schools with the highest share of students from low-income households and students of color the most. 

Many of Virginia’s school divisions are facing significant budget shortfalls for the upcoming year. If the state fails to adequately assist school divisions to protect students and staff if they return this fall, we are likely to see many schools struggling to meet basic guidelines for keeping students safe, much less focus on educating students. Insufficient support would impact not just students, but workers, families, and the economy as a whole. In order to protect students, their families, school staff, and the commonwealth, funding a safe reopening of our schools should be a top priority, and the state has a critical role to fill in the gaps to make sure schools are up to the task.


Flora Worthington

Chad Stewart

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