Tuesday, April 13, 2021
April 13, 2021

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Oregon schools have spent the bulk of federal aid so far on virtual learning

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PORTLAND — Since the start of the pandemic, the federal government has earmarked nearly $620 million in emergency funds for Oregon schools.

About $121 million that has arrived in Oregon so far, helping schools across the state purchase laptops, internet hotspots and program licenses to set up the virtual learning programs that have dominated the Oregon classroom experience over the last year.

But a second round of federal funds is expected to deliver another $499 million to school districts by the end of the month, the state’s share of a $900 billion relief bill passed in December.

And the bulk of that money should go toward reopening schools.

What that looks like will differ from district to district.

Some may need to upgrade dated ventilation systems or purchase air filters and fans. Others might opt to renovate classrooms to provide more space for students as the pandemic wears on.

Mike Wiltfong, the Oregon Department of Education’s director of school finance and facilities, said schools that are already open for in-person instruction provide a glimpse at how districts will need to spend federal aid.

“We’re already seeing where schools are struggling — some students sit in the hallway,” he told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Wiltfong is concerned that Oregon schools will start burning through their federal aid allocations as districts begin rolling out their in-person offerings. Back in December, about 50,000 of Oregon’s 580,000 public K-12 students were getting some sort of in-person instruction.

As of last week, that number was just over 136,000.

Only two Portland-area districts, Lake Oswego and West Linn-Wilsonville, have begun bringing elementary students back into classrooms. Most other districts will do so later this month.

In states where governors ordered schools to reopen such as Iowa, Texas and Arkansas, districts went through large chunks of their share of federal aid by the end of November, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education.

By December, Texas schools spent 42% of their allocation in federal aid. In Iowa, it was 92%.

Wiltfong said that once Oregon schools fully reopen for in-person learning, it’ll cost about $500 per student to educate them safely every year, or about $290 million.

Even though the White House has pledged to inoculate every adult in the country by the end of May, it doesn’t mean COVID-19 goes away. And that means schools will still need a steady supply of hand sanitizer and cleaning materials.

Some may even have to take on construction projects to increase ventilation or expand classrooms.

“What is going to be the appropriate spacing for students in the future?” Wiltfong said. “What happens if we have a run-in with another variant of the virus?”

Spending so far

The federal government didn’t just cut Oregon schools a $121 million check and call it good. Schools had to first make their purchases, then submit receipts to the state Department of Education for reimbursement.

“School districts are not sitting on a bunch of money,” Wiltfong told The Oregonian/OregonLive, citing speculation he’s heard to the contrary.

Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district, has so far spent nearly $23 million in coronavirus-related expenses. Officials have been able to apply for reimbursements of about $7 million in federal aid so far.

The district spent nearly $13 million over the last year on laptops, headsets, software and mobile hotspots as students went virtual.

But the district also spent more than $4 million to upgrade schools in preparation for the return of in-person instruction. That includes ventilation system inspections, signage, plexiglas dividers and portable air filtration systems.

Portland Public Schools has also spent more than $3 million on learning material and personnel for hybrid and limited in-person instruction. Personal protective equipment has cost the district more than $1 million.

Health and safety supplies, including mobile nurse carts, consultations and cleaning cost another $1 million.

The initial wave of federal relief came last March when little was known about the virus. Because of that, Wiltfong said, guidelines for spending the money were broad.

Districts could tap into federal aid to pay for meal deliveries while schools were closed. Or they could spend the cash on Chromebooks and software for virtual learning.

“Basically,” Wiltfong said, “it went toward anything a principal deemed appropriate.”

Portland Public Schools will be able to tap into another $27 million in federal aid when the Oregon Department of Education opens up the second round. And if the U.S. Senate passes the $1.9 trillion aid package approved by the House in late February, the district will have another $70 million at its disposal.

Long-term spending

COVID-19u2032s long-term effects on Oregon education spending don’t stop there.

Wiltfong expects districts will have to invest in personnel to help make up learning losses over the past year.

In Portland Public Schools, officials don’t know how much that’s going to cost. Spokesperson Karen Werstein said district leaders may have more information during a March 11 school board meeting.

Wiltfong said districts are wary of tapping into too much of the federal pot at this point in the pandemic. Even though Oregon’s economy fared better than expected over the last year and schools avoided much-feared cuts in funding, that sort of fortune isn’t guaranteed in the future.

And such unknowns are part of the reason districts have until September of next year to apply for reimbursements for federal coronavirus aid.

“They’re proceeding in the best manner they can based on local decisions,” Wiltfong said.

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