Budget & Finance

FEMA Will Cover Some COVID-19 Staffing Costs for Schools

By Mark Lieberman — April 19, 2021 3 min read
West Jefferson High School seniors get their temperature checked before entering the Harvey, La., school as students return for in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic on Aug. 31, 2020.

Schools during the pandemic have been pouring unprecedented sums of money into cleaning and disinfecting buildings; scanning temperatures and screening for infection; and purchasing and distributing masks and personal protective equipment to keep adults and children safe.

Now, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is offering to fully reimburse the costs of those efforts—not just the equipment and tools involved, but overtime pay for the employees doing that work, a FEMA spokesperson said.

Some estimates suggest schools will spend $25 billion total on protecting against COVID-19 in school buildings. FEMA’s Public Assistance Program has been offering school districts funds for responding to COVID-19 throughout the pandemic.

But the rules have shifted several times, leaving districts confused and disappointed. Some don’t have the resources to embark on the application process for the funds. Others aren’t even aware that FEMA aid is an option.

Among districts that have applied for funds, some have received a small amount. Others have been in the dark about why the agency hasn’t approved their requests for millions of dollars. Three federal stimulus packages have helped cover some costs, but the more money districts get reimbursed for during this crisis, the more they can devote to programs and initiatives that help students, administrators say.

FEMA under President Joe Biden’s administration has committed to fully reimbursing many pandemic-related costs for schools, provided that the money was spent on work performed after Biden took office, between Jan. 21 and Sept. 30 of this year.

In an email to Education Week, a spokesperson for the agency confirmed “overtime for budgeted employees and straight-time and overtime for unbudgeted employees” for work performed after Jan. 21 of this year counts as an eligible expense, if the employees were working in accordance with the agency’s current reimbursement policy. Overtime pay for work performed last year is not eligible, per the FEMA policy.

The spokesperson also clarified some confusion over the timeline of eligible work. Education Week presented FEMA with a hypothetical scenario: A school district bought masks in September but continues to use them in school buildings to this day. Is the district eligible to get the cost of those masks reimbursed?

Yes, the spokesperson said, but with a catch: The amount of reimbursement will be “based on the evaluation of the fair market value of the used supplies” after Jan. 21, the spokesperson said. Even though the purchase happened before eligibility began, reimbursement will be based on when the items were in use during the eligibility period.

How to apply for FEMA relief

The FEMA spokesperson encouraged administrators to go to grantee.fema.gov, and click “Register Your Organization for Public Assistance” at the bottom of the screen if the district doesn’t already have an account login.

School districts can contact emergency management offices in their town, county, or state for help navigating the FEMA program’s requirements.

Applicants for reimbursement will be required to share rigorously documented evidence of the costs for their requests. FEMA has not specified how quickly reimbursement funds will become available, though it has said that there is currently no deadline for requesting reimbursement.

Schools should not be discouraged by the availability of other sources of federal and state funding assistance. FEMA’s policy explicitly states that the agency may offer funds to school districts even if the district could have received federal funding for that request from another source.

That offering does come with limitations, though. The policy says FEMA won’t cover costs associated with COVID-19 contact tracing, for instance.

Do you have more questions about FEMA reimbursement for your school or district? Email Mark Lieberman at mlieberman@educationweek.org, and he’ll try to help you find the answers.

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2021 edition of Education Week as FEMA Reverses Course, Says It Will Reimburse Schools for Some COVID-19 Costs

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