School districts across the county collectively have spent nearly $17 million of their own money, private donations and state funding to buy supplies and technology needed for COVID-19 preparedness and distance learning.
Although district officials feel better supplied than they did in the early days of the pandemic, it comes at a significant cost, diverting money spent on traditional education expenses. Meanwhile, delays are adding to the crisis as districts spend big money on technology that might not materialize for months, leaving some students without resources to take classes remotely.
Across the nation public schools have spent between $199 billion and $246 billion to respond to the pandemic, which includes increased costs and loss of state revenue, according to the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization.
Clear Creek Independent School District, the largest in the county, spent the most on pandemic- related acquisitions with $5.5 million for technology alone and another roughly $4 million on cleaning supplies and additional staff, according to district records.
Most other school districts spent between $1 million and $3 million on technology, cleaning supplies, masks, Plexiglas barriers and other equipment, according to records.
WHAT THEY’RE BUYING
For most districts, technology made up the most significant part of pandemic spending.
Santa Fe Independent School District already had laptops for most students, but needed more and also needed money to get students online with those devices, said Heather Brown, interim director of technology.
“Hot spots were definitely a need,” Brown said. “We are a rural area.” Hot spots allow users to obtain internet access, typically using Wi-Fi technology, via a wireless local-area network.
Districts also spent money on additional cleaning supplies above and beyond the normal expenditures for such items.
Galveston Independent School District is using a germ blast spray on all its surfaces, said Connie Morgenroth, assistant superintendent of business and operations.
“It adheres to the surfaces and it helps anything that comes into contact with them, like viruses, it helps to clear them,” Morgenroth said.
Galveston ISD also will be getting additional technology meant to filter and clean the air, scheduled for delivery next week, Morgenroth said.
The systems, called integrated viral protection, are said to filter the air and add an extra layer of protection for teachers and students indoors.
“Safety of our students is number one,” Morgenroth said. “We want kids back in school if we can get them back safely.”
The school districts have spent some of the money on materials they haven’t yet received.
Like other districts around the county and nation, Hitchcock still is waiting on some of the devices it has purchased that probably won’t arrive until December, Superintendent Travis Edwards said.
Other than technology, the supply chain seems to have caught up to demand, he said.
“All the other stuff, people have adjusted and we’ve been able to get them pretty much without delay,” Edwards said. “Anything from overseas it delays the process. We try to buy local first and U.S. second.”
Santa Fe has had to wait especially for hot spots that are on back order, which is a problem for some distance-learning students who really need them, Brown said.
“There are still a small number of students that don’t have hot spots or don’t have good cell coverage,” Brown said. Cell network coverage is necessary for hot spots to work.
The pandemic has brought with it large and unexpected expenditures diverting some funds that typically go toward education, officials say.
“COVID-19 has had a major impact on our district budget,” said Carla Voelkel, superintendent of Dickinson Independent School District.
The state provided some personal protective equipment, but it wasn’t enough for the district’s needs, Voelkel said.
“Funds normally used for instruction are being spent on face masks, gloves, protective barriers and shields, hand sanitizer,” Voelkel said.
In Santa Fe, the district planned $380,000 for extra cleaning, protective gear and air filtration into its general fund, spokeswoman Patti Hanssard said.
In Galveston, the district used money from a fund set aside for unforeseen expenses, Morgenroth said. The district also has applied for federal reimbursement but isn’t sure how much money it will get back, she said.
“We haven’t gotten money yet, but have applied,” Morgenroth said.
Many districts have gotten money from the state or federal government to help pay for the extra costs, officials said.
The federal government provided $13.2 billion to public education through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act in March.
The Texas Education Agency also provided some funding for districts to buy masks and other protective equipment.
DIFFERENT SCHOOL YEAR
Along with that spending comes the challenge of revamping the school’s basic functions, said Melissa Tortorici, spokeswoman for Texas City Independent School District.
Preparing for the school year has meant a complete reconfiguration of the schools, Tortorici said.
Students have to follow very specific routes in the hallways when they change classes, she said.
And Texas City ISD is repurposing some spaces for classrooms to allow students to spread out, she said.
“We are using every possible space, especially at the elementary school level,” Tortorici said. “We have kids that are having their class in gyms, kids that are having their class in libraries.”
Now, many districts are working on how to shift as more students are returning to in-person learning.
Hitchcock started in-person learning more slowly than most county school districts, with students returning in phases, Edwards said. But as of Thursday, 70 percent of the district’s students were learning in person, he said.
That relieves some pressure on back-ordered technology, he said.
Hitchcock ISD also is focusing on prevention and things that will stick around for a long time, such as hand washing, he said.
“The idea is that we’re teaching kids to keep their hands to themselves,” Edwards said.