Metro Detroit school leaders praised a state budget that will spare them from large cuts but they stressed the need for additional money to handle COVID-19 costs in the years to come.
On Wednesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state legislators agreed to a budget that will increase per-pupil funding by $65. That increase came after a summer when educators feared falling tax collections could force cuts of up to $750 per student.
“It’s not everything we hoped for but it certainly gives some certainty to schools,” said Robert McCann of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, a group that advocates for more funding of public schools. “It’s a path forward and they can start making some longer term preparations in terms of what needs to take place this year.”
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Randy Liepa, superintendent of the Wayne County Regional Educational Services Agency, agreed.
“Compared to where we were five weeks ago, this is nirvana,” Liepa said. “School districts are just trying to survive on a daily basis, and for them to know that they at least have their budgeting at last year’s level or maybe a little bit better, is very comforting for them short term.”
But Liepa and others were quick to note that avoiding cuts is not the same as having enough money to address the additional costs imposed by COVID-19.
Things like personal protective equipment for teachers, staffers and students, beefed up disinfection routines, new computers and software to conduct remote learning and growing needs for counselors, psychologists and other mental health professionals are all weighing on school budgets. Those costs aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon.
“We were pleased with the governor and the Legislature in holding us harmless so to speak,” said Wanda Cook-Robinson, superintendent of Oakland Schools. “However, as we move forward into 2021, we’re going to be bringing students back to school. If we bring students back into that environment, that means additional masks, additional hand sanitizer and other additional things. That’s why we keep emphasizing the long term.”
Cook-Robinson said for a school district with 3,600 students, hand sanitizer alone will cost $30,000 a year. Social distancing raises costs for schools as does hybrid learning, where some kids are online and others are in classrooms.
“If we’re busing kids, we have to sanitize those buses in between the runs and get kids back to school,” she said. “So it’s the long term that we’re very, very concerned about.”
Macomb County Intermediate School Superintendent Michael DeVault said the added costs of running two education systems, one online and the other in classrooms, could be here to stay until the virus is controlled.
“We have to be realistic,” DeVault said. “Originally, I was thinking, how did we get to October? How do we get to November? Now I’m saying okay, those are still targets, but don’t let your mind go off of long-term planning thinking this could go to June.”
The educators noted that all of these additional costs are related to continuing school as it is. They don’t begin to make up the learning that has been lost through the shutdown.
“We’re going to need, I believe, serious effort and resources to address that loss of learning,” DeVault said. “Every parent I talk to, they know there is loss of learning in this model. We need to, soon, think about how significant that is for not only the state of Michigan, but for our nation.”
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