Budget & Finance

FEMA Is Spending Billions on Pandemic Relief. How Schools Can Get More of It

By Mark Lieberman — April 14, 2021 | Corrected: April 14, 2021 5 min read
Des Moines Public Schools Admin Support Coordinator Sarah Holland installs a plexiglass shield in the office at Oak Park Elementary School on July 30, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Corrected: A previous version of this article misstated the amount of money FEMA has so far spent on the pandemic.

So exactly what pandemic-related costs will FEMA reimburse school districts for?

Even as schools have devoted a growing pile of dollars to PPE, cleaning supplies, and other measures to keep COVID-19 out of buildings, it’s been hard to get a straight answer. Many districts have submitted claims only to see a fraction of their costs reimbursed, often with little or no explanation.

On top of that confusion, FEMA says it has contributed more than $21 billion in disaster relief through its public assistance program during the pandemic. How much have K-12 schools gotten so far?

Just under $26 million, according to an agency spokesperson.

But this week, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency offered some clarity. A FEMA spokesperson answered detailed questions about what the agency will and won’t pay for as the nation’s school districts continue to navigate one of the most costly and turbulent periods in their history.

A ‘difficult’ agency to work with

Throughout the pandemic, district leaders have griped about conflicting and vaguely worded guidance from FEMA.

So far, K-12’s small sliver of the FEMA public assistance pie can be attributed in part to the agency’s decision last September under the Trump administration to stop reimbursing schools for the cost of masks and PPE. President Joe Biden has since reversed that policy, but this week’s updates from FEMA indicate the new policy isn’t fully retroactive to the start of the pandemic.

While the policy shift should help schools, district officials still have a pretty negative view of FEMA.

“No federal agency is more difficult to work with than FEMA,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council for the Great City Schools, whose 77 big-city members’ pandemic-related costs could climb to tens of millions of dollars or more. “Their guidelines and rules are not clear; their responsiveness is appalling; and the timelines for reimbursement are excessive. I would rather work with almost anyone else but FEMA.”

Some school leaders also may not have realized they were eligible for FEMA reimbursement, or may not have the staff and resources to devote to filling out and tracking lengthy grant applications during an ongoing public health crisis.

Unprecedented spending by schools

The pandemic has disrupted almost every corner of school operations, and some K-12 advocates have suggested districts will eventually spend close to $25 billion on COVID-19-related costs. FEMA has urged districts to rely mostly on $195 billion in direct aid to K-12 schools passed by Congress during the pandemic as part of three economic stimulus packages to pay for those costs.

But districts say every dollar matters, particularly with efforts to help students who have struggled during the pandemic.

U.S. senators and state emergency managers in recent weeks have been ramping up pressure for FEMA to retroactively reimburse schools.

Questions and answers on FEMA’s current reimbursement policy for schools:

My district applied for millions of dollars in reimbursements, but the agency has only approved a small fraction of that sum so far. Why might that be?

Schools may have submitted requests for reimbursement for ineligible expenses, like the cost of remote learning. They might have submitted requests for reimbursement for the costs of work performed between Sept. 15 and Jan. 21, 2021, when FEMA’s policy did not permit reimbursing school districts for the cost of PPE and other COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

Schools would not be denied simply for requesting too much money, FEMA confirmed. The agency is not imposing a dollar limit on what K-12 districts can get back from eligible expenses. It’s also not currently imposing a deadline for submitting requests by a certain date.

According to the spokesperson, the agency’s public assistance program reimburses for “emergency protective measures that are necessary to eliminate or lessen immediate threats to life, public health, or safety.”

The agency has chosen a relatively narrow interpretation of that rule, excluding some costs of maintaining educational services for students during a public health emergency.

My school district last fall purchased masks and other PPE for students and staff, in preparation for reopening school buildings. Students and staff are still using that equipment now. Can I get reimbursed for it?

Potentially, according to FEMA. The current policy says eligible expenses must be related to “work performed between Jan. 21 and Sept. 30” this year. An agency spokesperson confirmed that purchases made before those dates could be eligible for reimbursement if the items purchased are being used during that time frame.

My district bought laptops and tablets for students to help them learn remotely while school buildings were closed for safety reasons. Can I get reimbursed for those technology costs?

No. FEMA has specifically ruled out remote learning as an eligible expense. Furthermore, “increased costs of operating a facility or providing a service are generally not eligible even when directly related to the incident,” the FEMA spokesperson said.

My district bought cleaning supplies last October to prepare to reopen school buildings in November. We used up all of those cleaning supplies shortly after buildings reopened. Can I get reimbursed for the cost of those supplies?

Likely no. The FEMA policy says expenses must be tied to work performed after Jan. 21, 2021 in order to qualify. Since that cleaning effort happened during the period when FEMA’s policy for reimbursing schools was more strict, the district likely would not be eligible for FEMA assistance through the current iteration of the program.

My school district applied last year for reimbursement from FEMA, but I haven’t heard back about the status of my reimbursement. Does that mean I’m not eligible?

Not necessarily. “Any school for which funding is denied is provided a written explanation of that denial and afforded an opportunity to appeal and/or arbitrate that decision,” the FEMA spokesperson wrote. “If a written explanation was not provided, it is because funding has not been denied and is still under consideration.” The agency recommends schools get in touch with their local and state emergency management organizations for more details. Here’s a state-by-state list.

My district purchased masks for students and staff members to wear. Can I get reimbursed for all of those expenses, or only for the costs of masks for staff?

FEMA says masks and other personal protective equipment qualify as eligible expenses, regardless of who wears them: “school administrative personnel, staff, teachers, and students.”

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