NC School Districts Grapple With Reopening Plans As Pandemic Costs Mount

Aug 5, 2020

As schools decide whether or not to hold class in person or online, one big question is at the root of it all — how much is it going to cost? The funding debate has been front and center, from the federal level down to the state and local districts, each playing its own part in planning for the next school year. There are many challenges ahead to keep students learning and everyone safe and all of it comes with a price tag.

At Sternberger Elementary School in Greensboro, Chief Academic Officer Whitney Oakley shows how they made space for social distancing and desks — a cafeteria turned into a classroom. She points to the tables in the hallway.

"These would be way too close together for kids to sit and each lunch together in a cafeteria," says Oakley.

No carpet or fabric chairs are in this classroom. Decorations are minimal and no books or other shared supplies can be found.

"No District Has The Answers"

This is what it would look like under Governor Roy Cooper’s Plan B, a mix of in-person classes and remote learning. But this large urban district has scrapped that method for now. Instead, students will begin the first nine weeks remotely.

"No district in this country has the answers to this," said Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras. "It's just all too new. And we don’t know where this virus is going, if schools will reopen."

Contreras says the district would need an estimated nearly $100 million to fully reopen buildings.

School leaders also worry about fluctuations in enrollment that could impact how much money the state allots to their district. More students equals more in their budget. What if headcounts shrink, or enrollment surges when they do reenter buildings? That's why local districts are pushing for the state legislature to hold school districts harmless, meaning not penalizing them financially for enrollment changes.

Angie Henry and Whitney Oakley with Guilford County Schools explain some of the challenges districts are facing to implement safety requirements.
Credit Keri Brown/WFDD

"Districts and schools could face cuts in staff allotments and other funding tied to student enrollment if hold harmless provisions aren’t made," said Contreras.

The state has sent PPE starter packs, providing a two-month supply for nurses and staff to conduct health screenings. That includes thermometers, facemasks, and gowns.

There's been federal CARES ACT funding to help North Carolina during the pandemic. As of late July, more than $726 million has been allocated for K-12 public schools.

But not all of it for trickles directly down to districts. It's a complicated process — several pots of money distributed to different departments. That can dictate how and when it’s spent.

So Many Unknowns

Representative Jeffrey Elmore is a Republican who co-chairs the House Education Committee. He says it's hard to plan for what the costs will be when so much is up in the air.

"We have to be very specific on seeing how the systems are handling it and what the needs are and you just basically have to see that after they approach it with their plan and see where the shortcomings are," says Elmore, who is also an elementary school teacher in Wilkes County.

Money issues are further compounded by existing inequities. A landmark case known as Leandro found the state's model unconstitutional because it fails to ensure that every student receives a sound education. Malishai "Shai" Woodbury with the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board worries about the 7,000 students who didn't participate regularly in virtual learning last spring. Her district created teams on the ground to help reach these kids, something that also wasn’t in their budget.

"You have the issue of equity, that the children that depend on public school for more than just academics but for a safe environment that's dependable, those kids don't have that anymore," said Woodbury.

Smaller rural school districts are also scrambling. Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott says one of the biggest obstacles is broadband access. It's all going to come with a hefty cost.

"You don't have to get too far out of town to find yourself in a place with no cell phone service and no high-speed internet," said Elliott. "In a recent survey of our families, 25 percent of them didn't have access to high-speed internet in their homes because they couldn't afford it or because it simply doesn't exist."

A Year Like No Other

Todd Warren, president of the Guilford County Association of Educators, is worried about the long-term impacts. He says many public schools are still lacking basic infrastructure needs like proper ventilation systems or enough classroom space.

"We had educators retiring and not bringing in enough new educators and right now we are watching a lot of educators deciding to take an early retirement rather than face the prospect of being close to 60 years old and going into a building that's not adequately resourced to keep them safe from a deadly disease," says Warren.

Districts say if the pandemic drags on, they'll need a bailout, as demands for more technology grow both inside and outside of the classroom.

All they can do right now is to try their best to meet the needs of students, work with public health officials to monitor case trends, and prepare for a school year like no other.

Follow WFDD’s Keri Brown on Twitter @kerib_news