HOUSTON – With a new school year less than two months away, it’s the biggest question on parents’ minds: What will school be like in the age of COVID-19?
“I would love to, as most people, to be able to send my children back in the safest way possible,” said Pearland mom Arwan Jackson. “Things are changing by the week, the day, much less August 18th, 19th when we go back.”
It’s not just the safety of sending kids back to school that concerns her. It’s the cost of that safety as well. The masks, the frequent deep cleans, the school buses running half-empty, the potential for more virtual learning, and computers for every student... who’s paying for all of that?
“There’s only so much cookie sales, dinners, and silent auctions,” Jackson said.
CARES Act entitlements for schools
When Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also knows as the CARES Act, it included billions of dollars for schools. The money was allocated to districts based on student population and income levels.
Houston Independent School District — the biggest school district in Texas, and eighth-largest in the U.S. — was supposed to get $81 million in federal money. Millions more were earmarked for other Houston-area districts. But they’re only getting a fraction of that money; enough to cover regular operating expenses for the previous school year, which was upended by COVID-19.
TEA holding some entitlement money
In Texas, school funding is based largely on enrollment and attendance. The Texas Education Agency, which oversees schools across the state, waived the attendance rule in March when COVID-19 forced schools to go virtual.
But most schools were banking on the attendance money and the CARES Act money to cover expenses, so when they found out that wasn’t the case, they were disappointed.
“We were hoping to have CARES Act dollars to actually get us through 2021-22 [school year],” said Glenn Reed, the Chief Financial Officer for HISD. Reed said now, they’re budgeting extra expenses from the district’s savings account.
“The first thing we want to do is be safe. If we’re going back into our buildings we want them properly protected, we want social distancing, we want our kids in an environment where we can learn,” Reed said.
So where could districts find more money?
The state is allowing them to apply for COVID-19 expense reimbursements up to 75%, and HISD hopes FEMA will bring in additional money.
“Right now, we don’t have, we’re not getting anything from FEMA at this point in time,” Reed said. “Hopefully there will be additional dollars.”
And then there’s revenue from property taxes.
As for potential cuts, Reed said the last place you want to start is with your people who make up the largest part of your budget.
“You start to layoff people then what happens when you are ready to go full force, you don’t have the people to open back up?” he asked.
What the state is doing with the money
What the TEA is doing is legal. The state is holding up the funds to shore-up their accounts for the next school year. This may be a disappointment for districts, but not a surprise. The last time the state received federal stimulus funds in 2011, the state made the same decision.
“Back when we had a federal stimulus package… when they basically supplanted the federal dollars to local dollars. So it really wasn’t unexpected,” said Reed.