Reopening Hurdles Linger for Schools, Despite Rescue Funding

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The latest federal coronavirus relief package includes $81 billion that began flowing to states this week with the goal of helping schools reopen quickly — with one problem being that many of the districts' problems can't be solved by money. 

Many parents want to keep their children home. Teachers have pushed back at reopening plans. And some districts say state guidelines on social distancing keep them from bringing all students back at once.

The money is welcome assistance for districts that have had to spend enormous sums on ventilation systems, laptops and protective equipment. With the end of the academic year approaching quickly, however, many are looking ahead to how to best spend the new money next fall.

For some districts that have yet to bring large number of students back to classrooms, no amount of money can help in the near term.

The Hillsboro School District, one of Oregon's largest, plans to begin introducing limited in-person learning for some students this month but cannot bring all students back full time because of guidelines on issues such as social distancing and bus transportation, said Beth Graser, a district spokesperson.

"There simply aren't people to hire to drive the buses we have, much less the fact that we would need to go through a purchasing process to secure additional buses if we were to increase our fleet to the point where we could feasibly overcome the transportation constraints," Graser wrote in an email.

The money released this week is part of $122 billion included for K-12 schools in the $1.9 trillion virus relief bill. Schools are strategizing over how to use the money over the next couple years to undo the pandemic's damage to the pace of learning and students' mental well-being.

Nearly half of U.S. elementary schools were open for full-time classroom learning as of last month, according to a survey  by the administration of President Joe Biden, who has pledged to have most K-8 schools open full time in his first 100 days in office. While the administration touted the relief package as a way to help reopen schools, officials in some districts say they won't tap into the new funding for months.

In Ohio's Youngstown City School District, where about 40% of students are back in classrooms part-time, CEO Justin Jennings doesn't expect the newest federal money to change those numbers before the school year ends.

That's partly because students already were offered the opportunity to return for in-person learning, and partly because the district doesn't even expect to draw on the latest funding until at least the summer, Jennings said. Then it may go to more protective equipment, upgrading schools' air filtration systems and broadband access, and investing in transportation to allow for better social distancing, he said.

About 60 of the 77 large urban districts that make up the Council of the Great City Schools are at least partially open, Executive Director Michael Casserly said, and most of the rest already had plans to reopen by the middle of April. The new funding will help with the return to in-person learning, he said.

"There's a fair amount of money that will go to just efforts to reopen the buildings and make sure that everybody is safe," he said. "Those will be one-time expenditures that the school districts will make that won't necessarily build any long-term capacity, but they will help open the doors."

In Hartford, Connecticut, Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said she expects the relief money will help the district bring more students back by expanding efforts to connect with families of students who have been absent or disengaged. The district has done close to 4,400 home visits this school year but often has lacked the resources to address the root causes of the problems, she said.

"Additional social workers, mental health and wellness supports would be so important and most immediately needed," she said.

Amid signs of slipping academic achievement, the school district in Connecticut's capital is encouraging all students to return for in-person learning on March 29, including some 9,600 students who have opted for virtual learning. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said  last week that students can safely sit 3 feet, instead of 6 feet, apart inside classrooms as long as they wear masks. But officials in some districts say that won't allow them to increase the number of days students learn in person unless state governments adopt the same guidance. 

"If the guidance is permissible, we are excited to be able to do that," said Jeffrey Rabey, superintendent of Depew Public Schools in Buffalo's suburbs, where schools are operating with a hybrid model.

One of the biggest obstacles remains parent fears about the spread of the virus in schools, said Andre Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He said districts have to show parents they are safe, especially in traditionally underserved schools where bathrooms often lacked soap or working sinks before the pandemic.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, where schools last week completed the transition from fully remote to a mix of remote and in-person learning, surveys indicate many families in the state's largest district may not want more time in classrooms.

The percentage of parents who say they prefer in-person learning over online has decreased in recent months, down to 47% this month from 56% in October, according to the district, which said parents have to feel prepared and safe sending their kids back.

"We are still working on looking at factors that may be able to help bring back additional students in-person in the weeks ahead," a district spokesperson said via email.

In Ohio's largest school district, Columbus, most students are back in classrooms part time under a hybrid schedule. Social distancing requirements that put capacity on school buses is one hurdle, and it doesn't make sense to buy hundreds more buses, officials said.

Another hurdle, district treasurer Stanley Bahorek said, is uncertainty about what's ahead and how schools might have to adapt. 

"We're in a situation where we don't have a choice but to respond to an ever-changing environment," Bahorek said. "And that's the perspective that I hope people on the outside consider when they say, 'Well, why don't they just bring the kids back to school?'"


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