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Congressional stalemate leaves school districts in funding limbo

Educators say costs to reopen amid pandemic are adding up fast with little clarity on where future funding will come from.
Image: The East Side Community High School is seen closed in New York City
The East Side Community High School is seen closed in New York City on Aug. 7, 2020.Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

WASHINGTON — When Congress left town Thursday without an agreement on new coronavirus relief legislation, they also left cash-strapped school districts around the country to begin a chaotic school year with little hope for more funding until at least after Labor Day.

President Donald Trump has been pushing for schools across the country to open despite the lack of clear direction on how to do that — the administration just this week released a ‘fact sheet’ instructing schools to “reopen safely.”

The administration insists in negotiations with Democrats that schools that reopen should get more money than schools that teach kids virtually, according to the HEALS Act, the Republican proposal for the next phase of relief.

But educators say regardless of their reopening plans — whether they be in-person, online or hybrid — costs are adding up fast.

Noelle Ellerson, Associate Executive Director of the School Superintendents Association (AASA), told NBC News that she is hearing from superintendents across the country about rising costs. Purchases like hotspots for students who don’t have access to WiFi or broadband, new online curriculums, more teachers and aides to bridge the gap in a hybrid learning model and laptops are just some of the incurred expenses that she’s hearing.

“If schools are physically closed, there are still immense staffing needs to run a remote program,” Ellerson said. “Intermittent closures doesn't mean intermittent costs.

With the pandemic continuing to spread and schools in some states already dealing with coronavirus outbreaks, governors are faced with difficult decisions to make amid pressure from the President to move forward with reopening.

But Democrats in Congress caution the move, particularly with their disagreements on how much funding is needed to make reopening safely possible.

And with the ultimate decision to reopen coming down to state governments, some educators are reeling with confusion after receiving mixed messages from all level of government on the back-to-school plan.

“If we were instructed to plan for remote back in June, we would have been able to make decisions that would have saved funds while managing the obvious shortfalls in state revenues,” Scott Feder, a South Brunswick, New Jersey school superintendent, told NBC.

And circumstances continue to change. With cases on the rise in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy Wednesday notified school districts that they will now have the choice to go full-remote after previously indicating that schools will reopen in person.

“This consistently changing guidance causes the ability to plan and manage funds almost impossible,” Feder said.

The stalled negotiations in Washington are, in part, due to an impasse on whether state and local governments need additional money to help replenish lost revenue and balance their budgets.

Democrats are pushing for nearly $1 trillion in additional state aid, and hundreds of billions in school funding. But Republicans say states don’t need new money and should have more flexibility to use previously-allocated funds from the CARES ACT passed in the spring. Republicans have proposed $70 billion for K-12 schools — two-thirds of which would be tied to schools that physically reopen.

“My concern relates to what is to come,” Feder told NBC. “New Jersey remains on partial lockdown and the economy continues to take a serious hit. My district was already slated to lose an additional $2.2 million dollars next school year and if no monies come into the State, I fear that the district will suffer a far greater reduction in aid.”