What Spending in Schools Looks Like During the Coronavirus

By Daarel Burnette II — March 27, 2020 3 min read
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Switching from a people-heavy, classroom-dominated operation to a virtual one—nearly overnight—has brought a series of unexpected expenses for the nation’s school districts.

As district leaders navigate this unprecedented scenario, they’ve also had to turn to the arduous task of figuring out the fiscal damage the coronavirus has caused their 2019-20 budgets. At the same time, with state revenue projections expected to take a major downturn next year, they’re attempting to craft next school year’s budget, knowing that students’ needs will be much greater once they return this fall.

In interviews with Education Week, fiscal analysts and district administrators described what the spending side of the ledger looks like right now, along with some savings that have come from closing school buildings for an extended period. But those savings, they say, are far outstripped by costs.

“I can’t imagine anybody coming out ahead,” said Karen W. Smith, the chief financial officer of the Cypress-Fairbanks school district in Texas. “But that depends how long we’re shut down, how robust the economy is, and how much you’re affected by everything.”

The coronavirus came late in the fiscal year, meaning districts have already collected federal, state, and local revenue and set aside that money for teachers’ and administrators’ salaries, the bulk of their spending.

Here Are the Big Costs for Districts:

  • Staffing: Most districts have continued to employ their entire staffs through the rest of the school year, including teacher assistants, counselors, librarians and administrative assistants. Many hourly workers were reassigned to other duties such as passing out grab-and-go meals or providing childcare.
  • Janitors and cleaning supplies: Many janitors are being paid double time or overtime for cleaning every door knob, desk, light switch, locker, and other high-touch surface in schools. If schools reopened to serve as child care centers, administrators redeployed janitors to clean several rooms, ramping up overtime costs even more. Many districts also had to spend tens of thousands of dollars to purchase heavy-duty cleaning supplies. One Oregon district said it had spent $23,000 on overtime for essential employees in one week and had spent $10,000 on cleaning supplies, according to a March 23 survey of school district leaders by the EdWeek Research Center. A California district reported in the survey that it had spent $60,000 on hand sanitizer.
  • Technology: Districts’ technology costs vary depending on how ready they were to deploy a comprehensive distance-learning program. Costs include purchasing licenses agreements for new software, wi-fi hot spots, communication tools for teachers, online curriculum, and professional development for teachers who must shift their teaching to virtual platforms. Many districts had to purchase more laptops or other devices for students who didn’t have them. Those costs are likely to increase in the coming months as districts figure out students’ needs. An official in a New Jersey district reported that the district spent $36,000 on Wi-Fi devices to provide to students who do not have internet access in their homes, according to the EdWeek survey.
  • Food Services: Districts are deploying food services across the city, which often times requires new investment in staffing, transportation, supplies and food.

Here Are Some Savings for Districts

  • Substitute teachers: Many districts decided not to pay their subsitute teachers for the remainder of the year, outraging many people who work as full-time subsitute teachers. Whether or not substitute teachers get paid depends on their contract with the district, state law, or governors’ waivers from the state law.
  • Transportation: Not putting dozens, or in some cases, hundreds of school buses on the road every day for several weeks will likely save districts tens of thousands of dollars, particularly in gas and maintenance costs. Many districts deployed a smaller fleet of buses to deliver meals to students or to serve as wi-fi hotspots in neighborhoods that lack internet access.
  • After-school programs: With no students in school buildings for a prolonged period, many districts don’t have to pay for costs associated with spring sports programs, after-school clubs, or other events. But administrators said there’s a loss too—they won’t be bringing in revenue from those programs.

Image: Teresa Patton, a night custodial supervisor with the Fort Zumwalt School District, sprays a bleach disinfectant in the classrooms of Progress South Elementary in O’Fallon, Mo., earlier this month. With the introduction of the coronavirus, the district purchased three additional machines to clean 2 million square feet of space inside the district’s buildings. (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.