Schools leverage CARES funds

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

Masks, face shields, plexiglass dividers, cleaning supplies and labor costs.

Those are just a handful of the additional expenses local schools are facing as they bring students back to campus amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve spent a ton of additional money,” said DeAnn Meyer, treasurer at Northeast Dubois Schools.

One of the biggest expenses has been face masks and face shields, which local schools are providing to students and staff. Hand sanitizer, extra cleaning supplies and the cost of additional work hours for custodial staff have also been significant.

The federal government did provide some aid for schools in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act, but school officials still found themselves digging into their regular operating funds to cover all the costs.

“We’re at the beginning of this right now, and I’m looking at the expenses we’ve incurred so far because of COVID-19,” said Southeast Dubois Superintendent Jamie Pund. “It far outweighs the relief funds we received.”

According to data from the Indiana Department of Education, Southeast Dubois and Northeast Dubois each received $50,026.34 from the CARES Act; Southwest Dubois received $131,849.72; North Spencer received $123,784.58; and Greater Jasper received $157,975.11, with $4,607.62 of that going to Holy Trinity Catholic School. The IDOE determined how much each school corporation would receive based on the Title I formula, which provides additional funding to school districts based on the concentration of low-income families in the district. Private schools receive Title I funding from public school districts according to an equitable shares calculation. That calculation was used to determine how much CARES funding private schools received through the public district they fall under.

At Southeast Dubois, administrators used part of their CARES funds to replace all the soap and paper towel dispensers in the corporation’s four schools. Previously, the dispensers were manual; now they are automatic.

“It minimizes the frequently touched surfaces,” Pund said.

Some of the money also went to purchasing supplies and paying custodial staff for their additional hours. Pund decided to save some, as well. Schools have up to two years to spend the funds, according to the IDOE. Pund decided not to spend the entire allocation in case the pandemic continues for a while or school funding decreases in the future due to the economic effects of COVID-19.

Administrators at Northeast Dubois decided to dedicate their CARES funds to a deep clean of all three school buildings over the summer, Meyer said.

“We hired a bunch of summer staff to clean out the schools,” she said. “Once we budgeted that out, we realized it was close to the amount we received.”

That meat that Meyer had to figure out other ways to pay for all the additional supplies needed to bring students back to the buildings. Fortunately, the school saved money while schools were shut down in the spring. Although they still paid staff during the shutdown, utility and gasoline bills decreased significantly. Meyer tapped into that savings to purchase the supplies needed to start the school year, but less than a month into the school year, those savings are depleted.

At North Spencer, the CARES funding is covering the cost of additional nursing assistants for each of the corporation’s five school buildings and the cost of setting up quarantine rooms for students and staff who develop COVID-19 symptoms while on campus. Some of the funds also went toward extra cleaning supplies, as did funding from the corporation’s regular operating fund.

“We’ve had to buy more of the sanitizer and cleaning supplies because we’re doing a more thorough cleaning,” said Treasurer Martha Barnett.

Those supplies include paper towels that students use to clean their desks frequently, hand sanitizing stations, facial coverings and mask lanyards.

The corporation also opted to install O2 Prime air purification systems to the air handlers throughout the corporation. The systems use bipolar ionization to kill bacteria and other germs in the air. The school dug into its capital projects fund to cover the installation of the systems, and Barnett is applying for a FEMA grant that, if awarded, will cover about 75% of the $117,000 cost.

At Greater Jasper, the CARES funding went to the purchase of hot spots and web cams that will be used for virtual learning when students need to quarantine due to exposure to COVID-19 or in the event of another school closure, said Tina Fawks, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment. Leftover funds helped cover the costs of cleaning supplies, face coverings and plexiglass dividers for office space.

Holy Trinity principals Jenna Seng and Jon Tempel dedicated their school’s CARES funds to cleaning costs.

Southwest Dubois school officials did not return calls for comment.

In addition to the cost of the extra supplies, local schools are also footing the bills for the online COVID-19 academies they’re offering. Although students who enroll in the academies are issued book bills, Meyer explained those costs only cover the rental of a school-issued laptop, not the cost of enrolling students in the online academies. Those academies are operated by third parties that contract with the school corporations. Since the students who opt for the online academies are still considered enrolled in the local corporations, the corporations receive state tuition funds for those students and cannot charge additional tuition to those students.

Although Indiana legislators, education leaders and Gov. Eric Holcomb all agreed to keep school funding from the state stable for the 2020-21 school year, local education leaders worry about what the future holds for school funding and how they will continue to cover the additional costs if the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

“These supplies do run out, and there is much more cleaning going on in our schools than in years past,” Pund said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep everyone safe.”

By the end of the year, school officials should have a better idea about future funding. The legislature will plan out the state’s budget for the next biennium during its session this year. Depending on how the budgeting process goes, schools could see cuts to their budgets for the 2021-22 school year.

“A big concern is what the General Assembly does with the budget this year,” Fawks said. “We just hope they don’t make cuts to school funding.”




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