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Federal COVID-19 Relief Funding Can't Come Soon Enough For Schools

Spencer Tritt

Last spring, while shoppers scavenged for toilet paper, schools scrambled to secure their own PPE and safety supplies.

Somonauk School District Superintendent Jay Streicher was trying to buy equipment for his students and staff before it sold out. Guidance changed so quickly, he says it was tough to even know what to buy.

“We had purchased [plastic] face shields for every kid. They had told us at one point, those were good, you could use those. So, we hurried up and bought them thinking ‘Oh my gosh, there's going to be a run on these!’ So we got them, we were all excited and then later the same week we find out that you can't use them,” he said.

He said they got about $59,000 from the CARES Act, but schools had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars extra so the district is now counting on the new COVID-19 relief funding. The House of Representatives is expected to pass the relief bill this week. It devotes billions of dollars to education.

Streicher’s district spent the CARES money on everything from Chromebooks to support remote learning, PPE and cleaning supplies. They also had to hire a health aide and a guidance counselor to help with mental health support.

The costs don’t just stop with PPE and sanitization. Another Illinois superintendent reported his district spent $600,000 extra dollars just on staffing because of COVID-19. Schools have paid more for transportation, too. Reopening in-person with proper safety measures has cost some districts millions. Even smaller school districts like Somonauk have spent hundreds of thousands more than in a typical year.

“It's been a tremendous challenge because not knowing when the funding will come, if the funding will come -- you're buying things that you didn't budget for,” he said. “And you're really hoping that all these promises that you're hearing from politicians will actually come to fruition.”

He says when students don’t have Wi-Fi and need hotspots, they can’t just wait and see if the federal money will eventually come, they have to make what he calls a “leap of faith” purchase.

The head of the Illinois State Board of Education, Carmen Ayala, pleaded with schools to spend a portion of their relief funding to help students make up for lost time in the classroom. Streicher says they’re planning the most extensive summer school the district’s ever offered -- another added cost.

The proposal sends $128 billion to state and local education. Streicher says he’s hopeful the new federal stimulus money will cover most if not all of the district’s extra expenses.