The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse school districts for costs they incurred trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to an advisory issued this week by the agency. But district officials and their advocates remain confused about what the agency will pay for and what they’ll have to do to get the funds—especially after some districts last year saw requests for millions of dollars of aid denied.
The agency’s new policy directly reverses guidance it issued under the Trump administration in September, which said FEMA would no longer reimburse school expenses for masks, personal protective equipment, and other COVID-19 protection efforts.
A FEMA spokesperson this week shared the new guidance with Education Week but declined to clarify the extent to which districts can be reimbursed.
Districts over the last year incurred an estimated $25 billion in costs paying for personal protective equipment, hazard pay for janitors and meals for staff, cleaning equipment, and HVAC system upgrades in order to reopen school buildings and prevent outbreaks among teachers and students.
Now, as they prepare their budgets for what’s likely to be yet another chaotic year full of costs they can ill afford, vague and wavering guidance from the agency has only deepened administrators’ frustrations.
“Quite honestly, just tell us. I need that security which says, ‘Don’t plan on ever getting this money back,’” said Susan Harkin, the chief operating officer of Community Unit School District 300 in Illinois, who applied last year for more than $5 million in COVID-related costs but has so far received approval for only $270,000 in reimbursement.
FEMA’s shifting guidance has confused administrators
The confusion stretches back to last summer, when some districts were surprised that their requests for reimbursement from FEMA were rejected. Then in September, FEMA generated controversy when, despite the pandemic being declared an ongoing national emergency, it announced that going forward it would not reimburse schools for the cost of PPE.
During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden vowed to direct FEMA to designate PPE and sanitation costs for schools “to fully be eligible for federal assistance.” In February he issued an executive order to that effect.
FEMA has spent close to $17 billion on public assistance grants overall during the pandemic, according to a March briefing from the agency. But more than a year into the crisis, with school districts’ budget season in full swing and student needs more wide-ranging than ever, FEMA’s role in financially supporting schools remains in doubt, school district officials say.
Schools collectively spent billions of dollars last year on items they likely never would have expected to need: face masks, plastic shields for desks, temperature screening equipment, hand sanitizer by the bottle, and disinfectant by the bucket. Some also offered hazard and overtime pay to workers who had to be in school buildings while they were closed to students. Last fall, AASA, the School Superintendents Association, estimated the costs could run close to $25 billion.
Karen Smith, vice chair of the legislative advisory committee for ASBO International, a nonprofit association representing K-12 school budget professionals, said the agency assured districts early in the pandemic that it would reimburse them for the cost of personal protective equipment. Only later, she said, the agency changed course, narrowing that offer to health-care workers only.
“We were required to come back to work and get kids back in school. We had to be protected just as much as they do,” said Smith, who also serves as assistant superintendent of business and financial services for the Cypress-Fairbanks district in Texas. She emphasized that she’s speaking on behalf of the ASBO legislative advisory committee, not her district.
Three federal stimulus packages have gone a long way for many districts toward addressing some of their short-term financial headaches. But school districts that serve a large number of low-income students got far more relief from those packages than others. And many still don’t know whether the stimulus packages were intended to replace or supplement other sources of federal support, like FEMA disaster relief.
The $5 million request from the Community Unit School District 300 in Illinois last summer included expenses like masks, electrostatic cleaning machines, and additional instructional materials and supplies so each of the district’s 20,000 students could have their own set.
A few months later, the district’s application showed that FEMA had approved only $270,000, with no additional explanation. “We try to get in contact with them and we don’t hear anything,” said Harkin, the district’s chief operating officer.
This wasn’t Harkin’s first time dealing with FEMA. When her district endured a blizzard in 2011, it applied for relief and got 90 percent of its requests approved, for a total of $100,000, she said. She expected a similar process this time, and felt encouraged early in the pandemic by conversations with representatives from federal and state emergency management agencies.
Now her district is stuck waiting on clarity, even as its May deadline for next school year’s budget looms. Harkin said the lack of concrete guidance from FEMA has delayed efforts to plan the details and scope of summer school initiatives.
“Our staff are burned out,” she said of the district’s teachers, who still don’t know what summer school will look like. “We’re asking them at the last minute to do this work.”
Schools don’t know what FEMA will cover
It remains unclear exactly which expenses, and for what time frame, schools can expect FEMA to cover.
On Monday, FEMA issued a new policy offering full reimbursements to “state, local, tribal, and territorial governments” and “certain private nonprofits” on expenses like masks, cleaning and disinfection, COVID-19 testing, temperature scanning and health screening, and portable barriers for social distancing.
At one point it looked like we were going to get reimbursements, then we were told we weren’t. Now it sounds like we are.
The reimbursements will cover “work conducted from Jan. 21, 2021 to Sept. 30, 2021,” the policy says. That statement doesn’t mention schools, and doesn’t clarify whether the agency will reimburse for items purchased before those dates but used during that time frame.
A FEMA advisory from April 5 that links to the new policy mentions schools, but it notes that “facilities that might be eligible for safe reopening and operation costs may include” schools. It offers no concrete reassurance that they are or will be eligible.
An agency spokesperson declined to answer detailed questions from Education Week about whether school districts are or are not among the entities currently eligible to apply for reimbursement, which types of purchases will be reimbursed, and how new federal guidance will affect districts that already submitted reimbursement requests but were denied.
Former President Donald Trump declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency on March 14, 2020. Last spring, during a series of webinars, agency representatives told school district administrators that FEMA would reimburse districts for the costs of personal protective equipment and other measures ensuring the safety of their students and workers during the pandemic.
Six months into the pandemic, the agency’s guidance shifted.
In a Sept. 1 call with state and local emergency managers, a FEMA official said masks or other protective gear for K-12 schools would no longer be eligible for reimbursement “because they are related to the operating of the facility,” according to an NPR report. Follow-up guidance from the agency confirmed a more narrow set of expenses eligible for reimbursement. That decision prompted an outcry from groups including the National Governors Association.
Responding during his presidential campaign to FEMA’s change, Joe Biden said that, under his administration, PPE and sanitation costs would qualify as emergency expenses for which schools could get reimbursed.
“If I were president today I’d direct FEMA to make sure that our (schools) ...get full access to disaster relief and emergency assistance,” he said, according to an NPR report.
Some district officials weren’t aware of the new policy announced by the Biden administration this week that specified schools as potential recipients of reimbursements until a reporter notified them.
Varied experiences, but a common thread: confusion and chaos
Michele Trongaard, who manages the budget for the 35,000-student Mansfield school district in Texas, submitted more than $5 million worth of expenses to FEMA, including overtime pay for sanitation and cafeteria workers who kept vital operations going while school buildings were closed.
She’s still waiting for the agency to review her request. But she’s felt discouraged after hearing other districts in her area have been getting as little as $100,000 back from similarly large requests.
Even districts that asked for smaller amounts have seen little in return. The Goshen Valley school district in Indiana last June submitted requests for $300,000 from FEMA but the agency has repeatedly denied the request, said Kelley Kitchen, the district’s executive director of finance. Among those expenses, Kitchen said, were $12,000 for each refill of all the hand sanitizer dispensers in the district’s nine schools.
The response was particularly frustrating, Kitchen said, because she and her staff made a concerted effort to discuss in detail the reimbursement process with FEMA grant staffers before submitting the district’s request. She initially wanted to ask for reimbursements for janitorial staff salaries, but the grant managers told her those weren’t eligible, so she left them out of the request.
“We spent quite a bit of our resources and manpower getting all that detail,” she said.
Some districts did manage to squeeze out some cash from FEMA. The Pittsgrove school district in New Jersey got $18,160, which covered the costs of PPE for the limited number of staff members who had to work in the school building prior to Sept. 15. Students weren’t in the building during that time, and “any PPE purchased to be supplied for students specifically was not allowed,” said Darren Harris, the district’s business administrator.
Harris said the FEMA representatives he encountered were helpful, and that getting the money he asked for was “no problem.”
Other districts have bypassed FEMA altogether. Harkin said some smaller districts that don’t have enough finance staffers to navigate complex federal bureaucracy decided, “‘I’m not going to worry about the federal government, I can’t count on them.’”
Kitchen said her staff has periodically had to go into quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure. “It’s hard to dedicate resources to get documentation for money that we might never see,” she said.
Even districts that have successfully covered their expenses and mitigated fiscal damage have had to navigate a dense patchwork of government support and logistical hurdles.
“I think we’re kind of in a waiting game right now of trying to see if we’re going to end up receiving any of these funds,” said Dan LeGallo, superintendent of the Franklin school district in New Hampshire. “At one point it looked like we were going to get reimbursements, then we were told we weren’t. Now it sounds like we are.”
His district’s three schools are getting a total of $9 million from the three federal stimulus packages, exponentially more than the cost of PPE and other pandemic-related expenses for reopening school buildings, he said.
Still, “if FEMA’s going to reimburse for these costs of PPE and cleaning supplies, that affords us more funds to direct towards the students,” LeGallo said.
In Goshen Valley, Kitchen is worried that the district will be losing money because of enrollment losses just in time for the need for more investment in remediation, for example, for kindergartners who spent much of their first year of school learning remotely. Even a portion of the FEMA reimbursements she requested would help, she said.
“I hope that one way or the other they kind of solidify what we need to do,” Kitchen said. “Whatever hoops they want us to jump through, we’ll do it. But they have to tell us what those are.”
If your school or district has tried to get reimbursed for COVID-19 expenses, we’d like to hear about your experience. Reach out to Mark Lieberman at firstname.lastname@example.org.