More than 100 school committees across Massachusetts have passed resolutions in recent weeks imploring the state to cover all costs districts will incur next school year protecting students, staff, and others from the coronavirus.
The school committees are passing identical resolutions seeking full state reimbursement for all COVID-19 related costs, including masks and other personal protective equipment and additional teachers, bus drivers, and other staffers who might be necessary so students can practice social distancing in small groups.
“It is the responsibility of the state to ensure that each school district is able to pay for the enormous additional staffing, transportation, and material expenses required to do this,” according to the resolution. “The state cannot expect mandatory COVID-19 safety guidelines to be followed without also ensuring that each school district has the funds required to implement these guidelines.”
School committees taking a stand include those from such cities as Holyoke, Haverhill, Quincy, Springfield, and Worcester; well-to-do suburbs like Brookline, Hingham, Melrose, Newton, Wayland, Winchester, and Wellesley; rural districts, such as Hatfield, Sunderland, Mohawk Trail, and South Berkshire; and vocational schools, like Southeastern Regional, Old Colony, and Montachusett.
“The sooner the Legislature hears us and can take some action, the better,” said Peter Demling, vice chair of the Amherst School Committee and a member of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee, who oversaw the drafting of the resolution. “If the state is going to come out with a mandate to open school safely, they need to make sure we have the money to do it.”
The flurry of votes comes as school districts increasingly face financial uncertainty in the wake of the global health crisis that forced the shuttering of schools statewide this spring and created widespread economic chaos. Local revenue in many communities is dropping, and the state is grappling with a loss of billions of dollars that could cause officials to back out of a promised increase in state education aid this fall and potentially cut even more. A separate movement is underway by local officials statewide to preserve the funding increases.
Opening schools this fall — if the course of the coronavirus pandemic permits it — will be a huge and potentially expensive task. Initial guidelines released by the state call for adults and students, starting in second grade, to wear face coverings. The rules call for keeping students in small groups, and setting up desks ideally 6 feet apart but no less than 3 feet. The need to social distance means many districts will likely alternate students between school and home instruction.
Meanwhile, school districts are bracing for the release of guidelines this month that will outline social distancing on school buses, which could force districts to expand bus runs or further limit in-person school attendance. While state officials have been encouraging districts to have more students walk or bike to school, Nerissa Wallen, chair of the Triton Regional School Committee north of Boston, said it’s not feasible to have most of their students walk to school. The middle and high school, for instance, is approximately 10 miles away from students who live in Salisbury.
Yet the state, in issuing recommendations early last month on how much personal protective equipment districts should buy, noted that districts will need to shoulder those costs and others — immediately raising concerns among local officials statewide.
In Springfield, for instance, the district is already coping with a budget gap in the millions of dollars for next year, as state aid remains in flux, said School Committee member LaTonia Monroe Naylor.
“We can’t afford to cut anything,” Naylor said. “Our kids need everything they are getting now and we actually need more staff.”
Denise Hurst, another Springfield School Committee member who is vice president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said students’ education has suffered enough because of the pandemic and they can’t afford to lose any more opportunities.
“If we forgo art and music, what will that do to a child’s social and emotional well-being,” she said, as she hypothesized on possible cuts. “If we have to cut teachers will class sizes go up?”
Governor Charlie Baker said last week he would allocate approximately $200 million from the Commonwealth’s federal Coronavirus Relief Fund for costs related to reopening public schools. Schools are eligible to receive up to $225 per student for eligible COVID-19 costs. School districts can also tap $194 million in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund grants. The governor also has allocated $502 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to cities and towns to help with coronavirus-related costs.
In separate statements, Representative Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat, and Senator Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, cochairs of the Joint Education Committee, said the state is doing all it can to support local districts.
“While I understand the sentiments expressed in the resolutions, it is important to remember that districts have been receiving funds to cover COVID-related costs through state dollars and federal CARES Act funding,” Peisch said.
”Our state government is committed to doing everything we possibly can to support districts, and ensure the safety and well-being of students, teachers, and families,” Lewis said.
But local school committees contend the efforts are insufficient.
“We simply cannot deliver on their mandate without a full reimbursement guarantee to provide safe facilities [and transportation] for all students and staff,” Tracy Novick, a Worcester School Committee member, said in a statement.