Virginia schools planning fall reopening face uncertain funding future

Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)– Lawmakers say very few school districts have the resources to safely reopen this fall, between strained budgets and added costs from coronavirus precautions.

State funding for school reopening could be decided when the General Assembly returns for a special session on August 18th. The date–officially announced on Friday–comes days before some districts normally return from summer break. Uncertainty surrounding what could come out of the session is compounded by questions over additional federal funding, which has stalled for months.

The Superintendents Association estimates that the average school district will need $1.8 million to reopen safely on top of the initial allocation of CARES Act funding schools received earlier this year.

Highland Springs High School social studies teacher Ryan Burgess is an organizer for a group pushing for an all-virtual semester this fall. Burgess said some are open to a hybrid option but, if that’s the outcome, they need several things to feel safe.

“Right now is a particularly anxious time,” Burgess said. “Hand sanitizer, masks, hand-washing stations, you name it, we’re going to need it. So I’m hoping that the General Assembly hears us and provides more funding for education.” 

Buying those supplies alone could run up a big bill at a time where state and local budgets are suffering. The National Education Association has estimated that, by the end of FY22, Virginia could lose roughly 39,200 education jobs as a result of declining general revenues.

When lawmakers revisit the two-year budget in August, they will be tasked with redistributing over $2.2 billion in new spending that was ‘unallocated’ due to the pandemic. More than $800 million of that was new direct aid to school divisions, including teacher raises and an at-risk add on. Lawmakers also approved funding for additional school counselors and English-language learner instructors.

Former Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox, who previously taught for 30 years in Virginia, supports an in-person option five days a week with a virtual alternative.

He said his ‘top priority’ for the special session will be to save some of that new spending while also shifting funds for the new reality facing K-12 education. In addition to safety measures like PPE, testing and temperature checks, he said they’re also considering paid sick leave for staff in quarantine situations. He said there will likely be a need for more nurses and tutors as well.

“We need to be talking right now about what is needed from the state standpoint as far as allowing those schools to open, you can’t wait until the special session,” Del. Cox said. “When the governor doesn’t even mention K-12 in his press release, it doesn’t give you a lot of hope that it’s going to be a priority as far as spending goes.”

Del. Cox said the General Assembly and Gov. Ralph Northam need to make their commitments clear so school divisions can plan, arguing they can’t rely on federal funding.

Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson person for Gov. Northam, defended his leadership on school reopening but didn’t commit to additional state support in a statement.

The method of instruction a school division selects for the fall will not impact the funding a school division receives from the state. In addition to maintaining consistency in state funding, the Governor has ensured that federal CARES funding is distributed expeditiously to school divisions. As divisions formulate their reopening plans, the Governor’s Office will continue to monitor the financial impacts of COVID-19 on the Commonwealth’s schools and work with Virginia’s congressional delegation to advocate for more federal funding to support our local divisions.

Alena Yarmosky, Gov. Ralph Northam’s spokesperson

On Friday, Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane announced school districts could apply for additional federal funding under the CARES Act to support the reopening process. The statement said the Virginia Department of Education will award $17.75 million to school divisions through ‘formula-based and competitive grants.’

“One thing already is clear though: Our schools will need federal support beyond the $282 million the commonwealth received under the CARES Act to reopen safely and respond to the spikes that will inevitably occur during the year,” Lane said in a statement.

The HEROES Act, passed by House Democrats about two months ago, would provide an additional $58 billion in direct aid for K-12 education nationwide, as well as $1 trillion to backfill state and local budgets.

The House also passed the ‘Moving Forward Act,’ an infrastructure bill that invests $130 billion to reopen and repair schools. Virginia Congressman Bobby Scott, the Democratic Chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor, said this funding is critical to improve heating and cooling systems in schools as the CDC says poor ventilation could exacerbate the threat of coronavirus.

Scott said Senate Republicans have refused to act on these bills to date but he’s sensing an attitude shift.

“I think you see the transition and the recognition that state and local governments can’t survive without this funding,” Scott said.

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