COVID-19 challenges school budgets as students prepare to return

COVID-19 challenges school budgets as students prepare to return

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - As school districts prepare for the upcoming year, COVID-19 has challenged their budgets.

School districts across the Pine Belt are trying to manage costs while keeping students and teachers safe during the pandemic.

It’s no secret that protecting students from COVID-19 is important for schools to continue operating during the pandemic, but doing so can be expensive and these aren’t a district’s typical back-to-school purchases.

“One of the most notable things are 50 gallon drum hand sanitizers that we’ve ordered for all of our schools,” said Laurel School District Superintendent Toy L. Watts. “We’ve ordered face shields for all of our teachers as well as Plexiglas dividers for all of our teachers that are doing small group, markers on the floor to demonstrate social distancing in hallways, masks, we’ve purchased additional masks because masks will be required.”

In addition to physical items purchased to protect students, some of the practices can become pricey as well. For example, social distancing has to be maintained on buses.

“In order to get our students to school, we’ve had to double route our buses, and there’s several hundreds of thousands of dollars it’s going to cost us,” Jones County Schools Superintendent Tommy Parker said.

”We’ve also spent money on additional nursing staff to help us with our temperature checks in the morning,” Watts said.

Then there’s the added cost of students working from home with online instruction .

“Virtual learning costs money as well,” said Petal School District Superintendent Matt Dillon. “So we’ve had to, as we’re giving out virtual as a choice in our district, we’ve had to reuse some of our dollars or repurpose some of our dollars.”

While the legislature did allocate millions of dollars in CARES Act funding for distance learning, superintendents say it won’t cover all of the costs.

“But I know, certainly, we have had to wrestle with our budget to decide what our priorities are going to be in spending the additional funds that we were given, but we will certainly have to dip into our district funds related to COVID,” Watts said.

All of the CARES Act funding is reimbursement-based, so districts still have to put the money up first to buy the products needed to start the school year within the next month.

Another issue may arise if schools need to purchase additional supplies and their CARES Act money is used up.

“We need to prepare for that and stock up on as much as we can because that will be our biggest expense,” said Forrest County School District Superintendent Brian Freeman.

Every superintendent WDAM spoke to said this is a fluid situation and could change at any moment.

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