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Returning to school comes with high costs for PPE

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 9/15/2020 10:39:56 AM

Cleaning supplies and face masks are only a couple items that schools across New Hampshire are stocking up on in order to welcome back students and staff, but these items are not cheap.

The Covid-19 pandemic forced schools into remote learning back in March, and now at the beginning of another school year, some districts have had to make the decision to return to the classroom for the first time in five or so months, continue with remote learning or implement a hybrid model.

Given the current circumstances and the need to ensure student and staff safety, school districts have had to shell out large sums of money to continue educating New Hampshire children. District officials have had to work on procuring enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to do so safely.

In order to cover these additional costs, some districts utilized funding from their own district budgets or federal monies they received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act).

The Berlin School District was one of those fortunate enough to secure a healthy allocation of CARES Act funds in the amount of about $634,000. Superintendent Julie King said that the district has used those funds to purchase PPE and cleaning supplies and equipment, including N95 masks, face shields, gloves and gowns. Right now, King said the district has a pretty good supply of PPE, with roughly 50,000 disposable face masks on hand.

A few new staff members were also hired with the federal funds.

“We were very fortunate to have a large allocation of CARES funds and we have just about expended those funds,” King said. “I know that many of the districts were not as fortunate to have such a large allocation and the struggle is real. This is costing us money and money that we didn’t budget for last year.”

King said she is starting to get a little bit nervous for what happens when the CARES Act money does run out. With uncertainty revolving around the direction the pandemic is heading in, it is unknown at this point whether the district will have to dip into its own budget in its Covid-19 response. King said that decision will depend on how long the pandemic lasts and whether or not the district gets another round of funding from the government.

Additionally, it is unknown whether or not the district will be forced to return to remote learning during the school year. King described this as a balancing act between having enough of a supply on hand and not having too much if schools do end up moving to remote learning, explaining how the district does not want to overspend, either.

The Franklin School District is also utilizing CARES Act funding for the school year.

“We were fortunate that we received about $539,000 in the CARES Act funds from the federal government,” Superintendent Daniel LeGallo said. “Franklin has a pretty high free-and-reduced-(cost) lunch percentage, about 66 percent. So, we got a pretty healthy allocation there from the federal government which is helping us with the costs at this point.”

LeGallo said that some money will come from the regular district budget as well but that the district is expending those federal funds first. He said he does have concerns about moving further into the school year when the CARES Act funding is exhausted and where the district goes from there.

“That’s what we’re looking at right now, is what is our monthly cost going to be in terms of the personnel and all the PPE and cleaning supplies that we need, and at what point are we going to run dry of the CARES Act money and have to then start using our district money,” he said.

Officials in Berlin and Franklin did not run into too many issues in procuring the PPE, but the Salem School District did face some challenges.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Operations Deborah Payne said that the district has worked with a number of different vendors. She describes the district’s experience of gathering PPE as a journey.

“It’s actually been fairly challenging,” Payne said. “A number of products were either backordered or not available, and it’s been a waiting game.”

She said that the district ordered surgical masks for the nurses, which she said are on backorder. Payne added that the company ended up shipping the wrong masks and so the district is waiting for the new ones to come in.

Similarly, the Gilford School District was also waiting on supplies to come in this week. Superintendent Kirk Beitler said that the district is waiting for some dividers to come in that will be put between the students and their classmates as well as the teachers. While those are on backorder, he said the district is hoping to have them by the end of this week or next.

“I think different things have become harder to get every once in a while,” Beitler said. “So back when summer started the masks were really a challenge to get, and so now those are easier to get but now gloves have become a challenge to get. So, those are harder for us to get right now.”

Beitler said the district did receive CARES Act money, saying a pretty large chunk has been put toward PPE. In addition to these federal funds he said the district will be using some of its general fund budget as well.

The Bedford School District is using its CARES Act funds predominantly for professional development for its staff, with respect to planning and preparing for both remote and hybrid learning. Superintendent Michael Fournier said the district has received about $95,000 in CARES funding.

“Right now, we’ve absorbed the costs of PPE in our budget,” Fournier said.

He believes that approximately $50,000 from the district’s budget has been spent so far on PPE. Fournier said that the district has procured some of its PPE through the state, adding that the district has also been fortunate to receive cloth face coverings for every employee and student in the district from a group called the Bedford Sewing Battalion, a group of residents who got together to sew masks. He said that the group has sewn almost 6,000 face coverings for the district.

“At this juncture we have not had any issues attaining the materials we need to open schools,” Fournier said.

The Kearsarge Regional School District used its CARES Act funding primarily for transportation so that students could get meals delivered in April and throughout the summer, according to Superintendent Winfried Feneberg.

Feneberg said some of that money also went toward materials, but that the bulk of the money used for PPE came from the district, which spent approximately $120,000 on PPE. Money for desk shields, disinfectant and technology came primarily from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) grant, but also from the budget and district transfers.

“Nobody planned and budgeted for that so these were transfers from other existing lines … that we may have to replenish as the year goes on, but we felt it was important to start the year out as well-equipped as possible,” Feneberg said.

Other districts contacted for this story include the Monadnock Regional School District, Jaffrey Rindge Co-Op School District, Milton School District and Grantham School District. Officials did not respond to requests for comment.

However, Monadnock previously told the Granite State News Collaborative that the district did receive some free PPE from the state. The Milton School District also previously stated that the state had supplied them with some disposable masks.


John Bassett, Kelly Burch, Emily Duggan and Jordyn Haime contributed data for this report

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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