Implementing COVID-19 safety measures in schools and launching remote and hybrid learning required blood, sweat, tears and a whole lot of money. Hancock County schools collectively received more than $14 million through the federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act. The money was awarded in three pools, Elementary and Secondary Education Relief (ESSER) and two rounds of coronavirus relief funds (CRF). Much of it — the CRF money — has to be spent by Dec. 30.
The need has been enormous. Schools had to purchase personal protective equipment, plastic barriers, cleaning supplies, laptops, internet hotspots, cameras, interactive white boards and software to allow for remote and synchronous (when a teacher is working with remote and in-person students simultaneously) learning. Then there were the costs associated with reconfiguring spaces. Regional School Unit 25 in Bucksport, where students sat at tables pre-pandemic, needed to buy all new desks to allow for social distancing. They arrived just days before school started. The district also acquired two new, nine-passenger vans to maintain distancing while transporting students. The Ellsworth School Department also has expanded its fleet with CARES funds.
Demand for supplies has been sky–high as schools around the country and world scurry to make similar transitions. That has left administrators struggling to source goods and services and get them in time while ensuring the purchases are allowable expenditures under the program. Schools also have had to balance the immediate, pressing need to educate students now with getting long–term, practical use out of their investments. In many cases, the pandemic has fast-tracked long-range technology goals by a decade or more. A steep learning curve for all.
And for all that enormous effort and expense, no one is really happy. Both educators and families wish students could safely be in the classroom five days a week. Reviews of the efficacy of remote learning are decidedly mixed. Nonetheless, we soldier on. What’s the alternative as COVID cases rise?
Curiously, the deadline to spend the CRF money falls mid-school year and mid-pandemic, a frustration — or at the very least a puzzle — in many districts. The Ellsworth School Board in October pondered and sought community input on how best to spend its second round of CRF funding, totaling just over $1.3 million. Further supporting teachers and parents was identified as a priority.
“It’s not about need,” Gorham School District Superintendent Heather Perry, who chairs the Maine School Superintendents Association funding committee, told the Morning Sentinel. “Every school system in the state needs these funds, just because there are so many things we’re doing that cost money that we need to do to keep our schools open. The problem is, especially in rural areas, the need to expend the funds in that timeline.” Schools that have used relief funds to support additional staffing are facing a cliff if they don’t have other money to use after Dec. 30. But that cliff is small compared to another looming ahead. The money awarded thus far, while saving local property taxpayers the cost of outfitting schools for pandemic-era education, cannot be used to offset losses in property tax revenue. The state Revenue Forecasting Committee in July projected a $528 million drop in general fund revenues in Fiscal Year 2021. Highway Fund revenues are projected to drop by $31 million that budget cycle. School budgets, which comprise the bulk of local spending in many small towns, could soon be in serious straits.
Congress must act quickly on additional COVID relief funds for states and municipalities. More flexibility on the guidelines for spending the already awarded funding would be a nice Christmas present too.