With one semester of this unprecedented school year close to complete, Michigan education leaders across the state now understand the extra costs associated with COVID-19 prevention.
Coronavirus-associated expenditures are well on their way to reaching nearly $1 billion in combined additional costs for school districts statewide, said Robert McCann, executive director for the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, in a Thursday, Dec. 10 virtual press conference.
While the CARES Act supplied federal money restricted to COVID-19-associated costs, these education leaders and superintendents want “unrestricted” funds to balance the next year’s budget.
Superintendents from Genesee, Oakland, Macomb, Ottawa and Muskegon counties gathered with McCann to discuss what school districts need to make ends meet in 2021.
“The federal CARES Act money we received in the spring was helpful, but it was also was very restrictive,” said Superintendent of Oakland Schools Dr. Wanda Cook-Robinson. “We weren’t able to utilize them in the unique, innovative ways we needed to adapt to our students. We knew at the onset that it wouldn’t be enough to offset the new associated costs of operating with the pandemic.”
In September, state lawmakers and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer approved $17.65 billion in the 2021 education budget for K-12 schools, community colleges and universities, as well as $15.5 billion for the School Aid Fund. Better than expected tax revenues combined with the CARES Act allowed for the deal to be made, according to state fiscal experts.
Cuts to areas such as the Department of Corrections, as well as dipping into the state’s “rainy day” savings fund, helped balance this year’s and next year’s budget.
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With unrestricted federal and state funds, school districts can support both short-term and long-term costs to make the lives of students and teachers better as the pandemic enters its second year, Cook-Robinson said.
“We can talk about transportation and continuing to provide food for students during this time, which we’ve done,” she said. “We can provide better cleaning, disinfecting to our school buses. Some teachers are delivering instruction from their classrooms, because that’s where their materials and best Wi-Fi delivery is. We have to provide PPE for that. We’ve also provided nursing support… but there is still a need for additional resources.”
Districts that went fully virtual will also require funds to make sure their districts are fitted to mitigate COVID-19 spread, Cook-Robinson said. More data from education leaders nationwide, said Dr. Jennifer Lewis of Wayne State’s College of Education, are showing schools must at some point return to in-person learning.
“Parents know that this has been a really difficult time for their children at home,” Lewis said. “For those of us with nieces and nephews in school… we can see that remote learning has been really challenging. But we have some really great data that nationally, this is a problem… We know that in-person learning is more effective.”
Citing a Stanford study, Lewis noted the findings concluded that “online learning is just inferior to in-person,” estimating that children will have lost five to nine months of education through virtual learning. Furthermore, she said many children are suffering mental health effects from a lack of social interaction, though she credited online learning for providing students from poorer districts access to certain classes otherwise unavailable to them.
“Children for the most part are really struggling with the lack of social contact and missing friends, being something bigger than just their own families,” she said. “Those kind of things are going to demand resources to get children up to speed.”
Tom TenBrink, superintendent for Jenison Public Schools, said the solution is going to come with long-term investment into people hired to address the growing learning gap and mental health problems.
“What we are going to need moving forward is people,” he said. “We can’t build budgets, hire people on short-term dollars. We need a long-term investment… classrooms of 30-to-1 going forward will not be acceptable. We’re going to need more teachers, because our learning gaps are going to be more than ever before… We’re going to need social workers in every building. We’re going to need additional school counselors. Mental health experts, behavior experts… Special education is going to have to grow whether we like it or not… We’re going to need some school nurses in our district to help us deal with COVID-19 issues.”
The funds could also benefit career development programs for students in manufacturing-heavy areas, said Macomb Intermediate School District Superintendent Michael DeVault.
“Up until March, we had tremendous career prep programs for kids coming out of the high schools getting jobs and apprenticeships,” he said. “That all has been delayed.”
This comes down to an investment in children, said Muskegon Area Intermediate School District Superintendent John Severson.
“The stability of schools is one of our strongest foundations as a society,” he said. “To fund that correctly and to come together is going to make a significant difference in the years to come.”
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