Education Funding

CDC: Here’s How Much It Would Cost Schools to Safeguard Against COVID-19

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 11, 2020 3 min read
Image shows a man wearing protective suit disinfecting school desks.

Strategies to help schools minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission would on average cost between $55 and $442 per student, depending on what measures are used, according to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday.

The cost estimates of COVID-19 mitigation strategies cover a range of expenses for K-12 public schools. These include no-touch thermometers, student desk shields, and face shields for school staff. Hiring additional custodians is also factored into the estimates. The $55 per-student estimate would cover only materials and “consumables” (think hand sanitizer), while the $442 estimate covers those costs, but also more staff and transportation costs.

The CDC’s estimate of total nationwide costs for K-12 schools varies significantly because each strategy has a cost range. The estimate for materials and consumables ranges from roughly $1.1 billion to $12.6 billion, for example, while additional transportation ranges from $8.1 billion to $19 billion.

The agency does not include costs for changes to food-service operations, social distancing in classrooms, disposable face masks for the school population, or contact tracing.

“These estimates, although not exhaustive, highlight the level of resources needed to ensure that schools reopen and remain open in the safest possible manner and offer administrators at schools and school districts and other decision-makers the cost information necessary to budget and prioritize school resources during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the CDC stated in its report.

The report’s cost estimates rely on fiscal 2018 spending figures. The largest percentage increase in pandemic-driven spending in any state, based on the report’s strategies and cost ranges, would be 7.1 percent in Montana. The smallest percentage increases in such spending would be 0.3 percent in Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Wyoming.

In October, Education Week highlighted lessons from districts that reopened their schools for in-person learning. The Seguin, Texas, school district reported spending $1.64 million on hand sanitizer, personal protective equipment, and hall monitors to track visits to restrooms.

“I want the community to know how much we’ve spent—most of it we’ve had to go into the fund balance—relative to limited support and resources we’re receiving at a state level. It’s important for them to see where we’re at in relation to the number of COVID cases,” said Seguin Superintendent Matthew Gutierrez.

Pressure and Fears

The extent to which schools need more federal resources to help keep children and school staff safe during the pandemic has become a significant issue in Washington and elsewhere.

Many state and local education officials say the pandemic makes operating schools, including in-person classes, more expensive, and that the federal government has an obligation and the power to help schools reopen their buildings safely. They also say that states and local communities shouldn’t be expected to pick up the tab in the midst of economic tumult and fears about significant declines in K-12 spending.

Yet public pressure on school districts to reopen their doors, regardless of whether additional federal aid is forthcoming, has been a constant factor in education leaders’ decisions. Research suggests that for most students, in-person learning is better than virtual classes.

Several school districts in big cities shifted from in-person to remote learning in the weeks before Thanksgiving as cases of the virus surged, despite arguments from some researchers that schools don’t appear to be major drivers of coronavirus transmission if they take proper precautions.

The CDC has been busy in recent weeks when it comes to the coronavirus and schools.

In early December, the CDC shortened its recommended quarantine periods for those exposed to someone carrying the virus. That might make life easier for schools that are dealing with teachers forced to go into quarantine and struggling to find substitutes, for example.

And last month, the agency removed a statement from its website that stressed the important of in-person learning.

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