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Back-to-school shopping lists for fall semester include masks, PPE

Wenei Philimon
USA TODAY

Published 6:04 AM EDT Aug 14, 2020

Shari Obrenski, a high school history teacher in Cleveland, usually spends about $500 each year on paper, pencils, markers and tissues for her classroom.

This year, her back-to-school list includes hand sanitizer, wipes and disinfectant spray — none of which Obrenski can find in stores. She hopes the Cleveland Metropolitan School District can get them.

“Reopening safely across the country is going to cost billions of dollars,” said Obrenski, who’s also the president of the Cleveland Teachers Union.

Cleveland schools will be online for the first quarter of the school year after a surge of COVID-19 cases in the area. 

As rising infections put the first day of school in limbo across the country, school districts are trying to make sure they’ll have enough cleaning supplies, masks and other protective equipment to bring students and staff back safely.

“There’s an expectation for school districts to kind of figure this all out on their own,” said Elleka Yost, government affairs and communications manager for the Association of School Business Officials International. “It’s unfortunate because we’re not just dealing with an economic issue, but also with a global pandemic.”

But many state governments are lending a hand, in some cases distributing equipment obtained from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

Wednesday afternoon, President Donald Trump announced the federal government will provide up to 125 million reusable masks to school districts across the country.

While that’s helpful, Yost said, “it simply does not begin to address all the challenges district leaders and educators are wrestling with as they plan to safely reopen schools.” She said Congress should pass another relief bill with $200 billion for schools to pay for everything from online learning technology to modified food-service operations.

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The cost of masks and other protective equipment has factored into some school districts’ decisions to start the year remotely.

The Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified school districts will start the year online and have called on lawmakers to pay for personal protective equipment, or PPE.

“We frankly do not want to spend a single dime on PPE when that money should be going toward the education of our students,” said Superintendents Austin Beutner and Cindy Marten.

Seventeen of the country’s 20 largest school districts — affecting more than 4 million students — plan to reopen only with online classes, according to Education Week.

Other districts say they want to offer in-person classes, but they’ve moved back their start dates. Some districts in the Midwest and South forged ahead with in-person reopenings over the past two weeks; a handful have closed after outbreaks or have asked hundreds of students to quarantine.

Masks, protective equipment will cost school districts millions

A typical school district with about 3,700 students will need about $1.8 million to reopen this fall, according to associations representing superintendents and business officials. That would pay for cleaning supplies and equipment, extra staff, and masks for staff and students who don’t bring them from home.

Some schools have ordered these supplies. But there’s a shortage of protective equipment and cleaning supplies nationwide, said David Lewis, executive director of the Association of School Business Officials International. Some school districts are still waiting for their plexiglass, masks and cleaning supplies to arrive, Lewis said. 

“We’ve ordered things, especially cleaning supplies and PPE, and were told that it was going to be delivered, but those dates have been bumped many times,” said Kelley Kitchen, executive director of finance for Goshen Community Schools and a member of the Association of School Business Officials’ legislative advisory committee.

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In some cases, state leaders have promised to provide personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer and extra cleaning supplies.

Texas’ school districts will receive 53 million disposable and 18 million reusable masks for students and staff, along with gloves, thermometers, hand sanitizer and face shields. In Tennessee, school districts will receive 27 million disposable masks and 298,000 reusable masks. 

Based on last year’s enrollment, it appears both states would have an ample supply of masks.

That doesn’t appear to be the case in California. The California Department of Education has distributed 1.9 million cloth masks, 1.3 million face shields and 2.7 million bottles of hand sanitizer. The state has about 6.2 million public school students in kindergarten through 12th grade. 

In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers provided 2 million masks and more than 4,200 thermometers to school districts, said Chris Bucher, communication specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. 

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said the state would provide at least five reusable masks for every student and staffer, and a two-month supply of thermometers and equipment.

Some school districts expect to provide masks for every student. The school business officials association based its reopening estimate on providing masks for 30% of them. That’s based on the assumption that schools would need to provide masks for students whose families can’t buy them or those who forget them, Yost said. 

States call on FEMA for masks

Some of that equipment is coming from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which said it has distributed masks to states on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services. The supplies can be distributed as states see fit. 

Brian Ferguson, deputy director for crisis communication for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, anticipates FEMA will cover 75% of the supplies distributed to schools there.

FEMA supplied 2 million masks and 4,200 thermometers at no cost to the state of Wisconsin, said Britt Cudaback, the governor’s deputy communications director. 

In Indiana, school districts have obtained protective equipment through the CARES Act, local and state general funds, and donations from the community, Kitchen said.

‘The need is so much bigger than just masks’

As school districts wait for supplies, some teachers worry the burden will fall on them. That’s especially concerning in poorly funded districts and those with a large share of students from poor families.

Heather Sanchez is a music teacher at a public school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where 68% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. State officials plan to provide personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer for students and staff, Sanchez said. But that’s not all these students need. 

“There are issues with our kids having shoes,” she said. “Our kids don’t have food and school supplies. The need is so much bigger than just masks.”

On top of that, parents and educators are concerned about students’ safety.  

Elementary school principal Victoria Creamer in Durham, North Carolina, said she fears what lies ahead. Last school year, when the state was under a stay-at-home order, an 8-year-old student in her school contracted the virus and died.

Creamer worries that without the proper preparation and supplies, there may be an outbreak. 

Some wonder how schools with small classrooms will ensure social distancing and how schools will deal with parents who don’t want their kids to wear masks, Sanchez said. 

“The fear is there,” Creamer said, “and no one seems to be addressing it.”

Contributing: Elinor Aspegren, Dinah Voyles Pulver, Erin Richards, Courtney Subramanian


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