Cost of ensuring school safety complicates reopening plans

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Des Moines Public Schools custodian Cynthia Adams cleans a desk in a classroom at Brubaker Elementary School, Wednesday, July 8, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. The cost of bringing students back to classrooms is proving a major stumbling block to safely reopening schools across the U.S. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

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.