Teaching Profession

Teachers Can Apply PPE Costs to Their $250 Educator Tax Deduction. Is That Enough?

By Madeline Will — December 29, 2020 6 min read
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Teachers who have been working in school buildings this year have often had to dip into their own wallets to purchase personal protective equipment to keep themselves and their students safe from the coronavirus.

They will now be able to apply the cost of the PPE or other supplies used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in their classrooms toward the existing educator expense deduction of $250 on their federal taxes, thanks to the newly signed coronavirus economic relief package. The deduction is retroactive to March 12, 2020.

But some teachers say while they’re glad they can now deduct the cost of their PPE, they were hoping the $250 tax break would be increased for this school year, given other unexpected expenses they have had to contend with during the pandemic. Many teachers have had to purchase new technology for remote instruction, or more school supplies than normal to limit students sharing.

“PPE has become an essential classroom supply,” said Ann Pifer, the executive director of AdoptAClassroom.org, a crowdfunding site for teachers. But “that deductible limit is so small, and they still need all the other classroom supplies. Is it going to help that much?”

The educator expense deduction traditionally covers books, supplies, computer hardware and software, professional development costs, and other supplementary materials that teachers purchased for their classrooms and were not reimbursed for by their district.

Federal data show that in the 2014-15 school year, 94 percent of public school teachers spent their own money on classroom supplies without reimbursement. On average, those teachers spent $479.

There’s a wide range in how much PPE schools and districts provide to staff. Some teachers have as much as they need, while others might get one face mask, Pifer said. This fall, PPE and classroom sanitizing equipment were the most commonly purchased supply by teachers who received AdoptAClassroom.org donations.

Paula Strozyk, an instructional coach at John Newbery Elementary School in Wenatchee, Wash., has spent $215 on personal protective equipment this year. That includes four masks that are transparent, so her students can see how her mouth moves during phonics instruction, two face shields, one pair of goggles, 20 KN95 masks, and eight washable masks.

Her school had provided staff with disposable medical masks, but Strozyk said that wasn’t enough protection for many teachers. She, and some of her colleagues, wanted better-quality PPE to feel safe working in schools.

Tracy Coley-Smith, a preschool teacher at Woodlawn Elementary School near Cincinnati, said that while her school provided some masks, she had to buy extra reusable ones so that she could swap them out over the course of the school day. She also wanted to make sure she was wearing masks that were thick enough.

“We’re with kids two-and-a-half hours in the morning and a different group in the afternoon,” Coley-Smith said. “It’s not a situation that we should go into without having appropriate gear.”

‘If They Need It, We Get It’

Federal data show that teachers in high-poverty schools spend more on classroom supplies—as well as on food, clothing, and personal-hygiene items for students—than their peers in more-affluent schools. And this year, with millions of Americans unemployed, teachers say they feel even more obligated to use their own money to support their students.

“Teachers, we buy things for kids,” Strozyk said. “If they need it, we get it.”

Coley-Smith said she typically spends $1,500 on classroom supplies in a school year. At this point, halfway through the school year, she’s already spent $1,000.

Her school provided some basic classroom supplies, but they won’t last the whole school year. In years past, Coley-Smith said she might have asked parents to bring some materials—like Play-Doh and markers—in for their children, but she won’t this year: “A lot of them are struggling.”

But buying classroom supplies is a financial burden for teachers, too. Rebecca Schendel is a kindergarten teacher in Missoula, Mont., and a single mom of two. Her own children qualify for reduced-price lunches. “I’m considered low-income in my own district that I’ve worked for for 20 years,” she said.

Schendel hasn’t yet tallied up the costs of what she has bought this school year, but she expects it to be more than $250. Her district has provided most of her PPE and sanitizing equipment, but she has bought some comfortable masks and one transparent mask for herself. She has also purchased things like water bottles for students since the school’s water fountains are off-limits, and foaming hand soap to make washing hands go quicker and be more fun for her young students.

Schendel has also spent money laminating paper materials so she can clean them in between uses, and has bought a ring light and external microphone to make videos for her students who are learning remotely. She has had to buy more materials than she normally would since students can’t share.

Teachers whose schools are entirely remote have had to spend more than normal this school year, too. AdoptAClassroom.org’s Pifer said many teachers are buying items to make remote instruction more productive, like headphones for their students, as well as items like printers and ink to set up a home classroom.

Dina Calderon, a 2nd grade teacher in the Riverside, Calif., school district, had to buy a new computer that would let her stream video so she could read aloud to her students, a ring light, and a table for her to teach at—totaling a few thousand dollars. And Calderon still had to buy traditional classroom supplies so her students can work offline, and show their work on a whiteboard via the webcam.

“I’m buying more materials for my students than I normally would,” she said. “It’s a constant stream of Amazon boxes that come to the door.”

Her district provides some materials for parents to pick up at school, but many of her students can’t make it to the school building. Calderon buys supplies like whiteboard markers and crayons and drops them off at her students’ houses.

Teachers working remotely have also had to pay for their high-speed wireless internet at home, which is now essential to their job. A nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey in May found that just 1 percent of teachers said their school or district was footing the bill for their home internet access.

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Education groups have asked for Congress to give more money to schools to help offset some of these expenses.

“While the extra relief [with the $250 deduction] is welcome, it is inexcusable that educators are being relied upon to purchase their own PPE to protect their kids and themselves in a pandemic,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement.

Schools should have received extra money from Congress to purchase protective equipment for staff and students, she said. “What will happen instead—as it always does—is that teachers will subsidize the cost of getting kids back to in-person learning,” Weingarten said.

The COVID-19 relief deal gives about $57 billion in direct aid to K-12 schools. The legislation says schools can use much of that money to address learning loss, to improve school facilities and infrastructure to reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus, and to purchase education technology.

Education organizations, including the AFT, have said schools will need additional aid, and characterized this bill as a down payment.

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