COVID-19: A ‘new normal’ for K-12 districts 

Tracking the coronavirus’ impact on spending, 2020-21 budgets
By: | April 28, 2020
Everyday operations now include meal distribution and a transition to and continuation of remote learning (online and packet-based), plus device distribution and access considerations. Administrators are working to manage it all—plus budgets. ( FANDSrabutan)Everyday operations now include meal distribution and a transition to and continuation of remote learning (online and packet-based), plus device distribution and access considerations. Administrators are working to manage it all—plus budgets. ( FANDSrabutan)

With the coronavirus pandemic forcing school closures and moving learning online, possibly through the end of the 2019-20 school year (and beyond), K-12 districts are managing a “new normal.” Everyday operations now include meal distribution and a transition to and continuation of remote learning (online and packet-based), plus device distribution and access considerations.

CIOs, along with technology and other administrators, are also starting to track potential surpluses, as transportation, fuel, utilities and travel-related expenses, for instance, fall. And they are considering budgets for the next school year. Since schools began shutting their doors about two months ago, there are still many unknowns, complicating matters.

Read: Infographic: The COVID-19 crisis and school district budgets

Life now: Rising costs, potential surpluses

First and foremost is meeting the needs of staff and students today, say many administrators.

“So far, we have been consumed with keeping the day-to-day operations moving forward,” says Ed Grassia, CIO for Tacoma Public Schools in Washington state.

“Our leadership meetings are always focused on what’s happening now and how we can best help our students and equip our teachers with what they need,” echoes Eujon Anderson, technology director for Troy City Schools in Alabama, and a featured speaker at FETC®

Every district, large and small, has different expenses, of course, but technology costs are among those on the rise due to online learning. “You’re seeing massive purchases and deployments of Chromebooks now,” says Tom Ryan, chief information and strategy officer for Santa Fe Public Schools in New Mexico. 

San Antonio ISD, for example, recently purchased 30,000 Chromebooks for student use and is providing wireless hot spots. Funds from other departments helped cover costs, says Kenneth Thompson, chief information technology officer.

Santa Fe already had a 1-to-1 take-home program for grades 7 through 12, with K-6 using classroom devices, which the district has distributed.

Read: How schools may change forever when they reopen in the fall

The Metropolitan School District at Wayne Township in Indianapolis is also distributing devices to students who need them, including those in grades 3 through 5 who had only used the devices in school. Another cost: The district will only provide swap-outs when repairs are needed, says Pete Just, chief technology officer and chief operations officer for the district. (Any returned devices will be decontaminated and then repaired.)

And device lifespan is expected to diminish once they leave school buildings, Just says. The typical four-year lifespan may go down to two to three years when they are used at student homes since there is more potential for damage.

Anderson, of Troy City Schools, has similar concerns for planning purposes. “We don’t know how many devices would be needed now to replace anything that comes back damaged or lost from what we sent out to students for home-schooling,” he says.

Beaverton School District in Oregon also orchestrated distribution of over 5,000 Chromebooks at 33 locations for elementary students, says CIO Steve Langford.

Some districts are also seeing costs rise from producing and distributing remote learning packets to early elementary school students and to those who may not have internet access, for instance. Fulton County Schools in Atlanta provided families with some 15,000 packets in one week, says Cliff Jones, chief academic officer.

Read: Online? In-person? How fall 2020 is taking shape for schools.

Hilliard City Schools in Ohio is seeing additional costs, as well. “We are having to interact directly with families to provide tech support during e-learning,” Chief Technology Officer Rich Boettner says. “Sometimes we need a translator to support and help the family. This is just one example of what I think will likely be many additional costs we are just starting to see.”

Other costs stem from a need for professional development. “We’re actually doing significantly more PD out of necessity with remote learning,” says Just, of Indianapolis.

Closures due to COVID-19 may produce some savings for districts, too, since buildings are closed for students and bus runs are down, for instance.

“We will see significant savings in the months of April and May, obviously, as the utilities turned down, less bus fuel, no substitutes,” says Just. “But we don’t know how that will balance out, with additional cleaning supplies, gloves, overtime, pandemic pay [of an additional $5 per hour for hourly employees]. We’re hoping to come out neutral.”

Savings may also come from reduced usage of water and paper supplies, including pencils, pens, flip charts and test materials, adds Ryan, of Santa Fe Public Schools. 

At The School District of University City in Missouri, building projects may be accelerated, resulting in additional cost savings. Projects that were to have been completed in July or August may be completed in May or June, which could reduce labor costs since work would be off-peak. “But it’s not for sure,” says Robert Dillon, director of innovative learning. “We’re not sure if we can put people in there in May or June.”

Read: Creativity in crisis: WiFi buses narrow the digital divide

Looking ahead

There is ongoing discussion on what life will look like going forward, says Jones, of Fulton County Schools. “We certainly have had initiatives around early learning, more robust career and technical education offerings, and those initiatives haven’t gone anywhere,” says Jones. “In terms of PD and our summer plan, we are rethinking where we are going with that. One of our big initiatives is enhanced math, creating a math pathway to get all students to algebra I by eighth grade.”

The district has been working with teachers and national experts this school year, and planned to train all kindergarten teachers and all sixth-grade math teachers over the summer. “But in terms of social distancing and the new reality, how do we do that?” Jones questions. 

COVID-19 may also prompt districts to consider automation on the business side with staff working at home. “School systems are built on paper,” says Ryan, of Santa Fe, from delivery of books to chasing paper—getting signatures for procurement or human resources purposes, for instance. Automation could speed workflows, and reduce paper costs and the need for related clerical positions. The short-term investment could produce long-term savings, Ryan says. It could also help management with decision-making, providing access to real-time data.

Districts may consider more online PD, too. Santa Fe Public Schools, for instance, has lost money on conference registration and travel, since not all expenses were refunded, and with some larger events moving to fall 2020, in-person attendance at the start of the school year may be challenging. So far, his district plans to wait until conference dates get closer before registering, forgoing early-bird discounts. “What if we had another attack of COVID-19?” Ryan questions. “We’d lose money again.” He says the district will look at how to take advantage of online PD options.  

Read: How much will your state receive from the CARES Act?

Budgets: More questions

With the economy on shaky ground, K-12 districts are concerned about budgets.

“Seventy percent of our funds come from local sources,” says Robert Dillon, of The School District of University City. “If businesses don’t exist, business taxes don’t exist. We may see a little surplus now, but if we look bigger, if we lose 20 businesses in the community, we don’t get funding for years to come.”

There are also concerns about student migration. “We have a lot of transient families, and if 25 or 50 families left, that would be a significant hit financially,” adds Dillon. “I think about with [Hurricane] Katrina, families left New Orleans, so we may see mini migrations come out of this.” Families may not want to stay in heavily populated areas, he says. “When some 12,000 districts in the U.S. have 2,500 kids or less, migration numbers matter.”

Read: K-12 leaders gaining some flexibility over budgets

With New Mexico’s tax dollars from oil, gas and tourism falling, Ryan expects budget cuts for Santa Fe Public Schools. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we had a special legislative session to redo the budget.” He adds that legislative bodies may also consider making exceptions, giving school districts more time to spend money from this fiscal year’s budget.

Will districts be able to carry over any potential surpluses to fill gaps in 2020-21 budgets? “Every state has rules for what you can carry over,” says Just, of MSD of Wayne Township. But he says any fuel savings his district sees, for instance, could be used to buy fuel for next year. 

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provides a $30.75 billion Education Stabilization Fund to address the needs of all students, will also have an impact. It includes some $13 billion for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, which states can use for a wide range of purposes, including buying computers and hot spots for online learning, supplies for cleaning and sanitation, paying for PD for educators, and supporting access to instruction for students with disabilities.

“We are early in the process of trying to get a handle on this,” says Just.

Read: 208 free K-12 resources during coronavirus pandemic

Takeaways from closures

What the COVID-19 pandemic has taught schools is learning must continue, points out Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking. “Like business continuity, this is learning continuity,” he says. “Today it’s a pandemic, tomorrow, a hurricane, flood, fire disaster.” 

Lenny Schad, chief information and innovation officer at District Administration and former CIO of Houston ISD, agrees. “The key to going through this now is what school systems are going to do to prepare,” he says, “so this type of virtual instruction is a tool in their toolbox going forward.”

Marybeth Luczak is an associate editor of DA.

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