Is virtual school really cheaper? Are school districts saving money with remote learning? What will full recovery and reopening really cost? In this three-part series, we’ll explore some of the hidden costs of COVID-19 for families and school districts as they navigate remote, hybrid, and reopening for in-person instruction.
In Part 1, I laid out some of the hidden costs of virtual school that get transferred to families as well as the economic benefits of shared resources and economies of scale from public school districts. In a typical school year, districts have certain costs that are associated with in-person instruction—transportation, sanitation, etc. In a scenario where districts are providing remote instruction, are they saving money on the costs that are associated with in-person instruction?
School District Budgets 101
Before we dig into the details, let’s take a high level look at district budgets. Right off the bat, an average of 13% of a district’s budget is fixed costs for debt service and capital—this can vary based on the state pension system and how much debt a district has taken on for capital projects. From the remaining operating budget, about 58% is instructional salaries and benefits. Another 15-20% goes towards administration and support staff (guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, the superintendent, the finance director, maintenance, IT, cafeteria staff, etc.) Less than 20% of district spending covers everything else—books, technology, supplies, athletics, transportation, nutrition, utilities, HR and IT systems.
Whether virtual or in-person, the district will employ its teaching staff at nearly identical levels. Most districts are pursuing a similar strategy for rostering and scheduling students and teachers will meet with them in either a remote or hybrid fashion. The administrative staff is also still largely fulfilling their same duties: the IT department will be working overtime as districts roll out new 1:1 programs; HR and finance still need to staff remote classes, fill vacancies, build the budget, and run payroll; principals are still managing teams of teachers and communicating with parents; cafeteria workers are still preparing meals for delivery or grab-and-go; the grants teams are still applying for and reporting on various state and federal grants—possibly with additional work for CARES Act funding and any additional stimulus fund that may be offered this Fall.
Many services or resources that seem unnecessary or underutilized during physical school closures still require a certain maintenance of effort and capacity in order to ensure the district can seamlessly transition back to in-person instruction when the time comes. Areas of spending with modest or significant decreases are quickly offset by a variety of new (or newly urgent) expenses, including technology, internet access, building upgrades, protective equipment, and delivery of supplies and meals to students.
Supplies and Materials
This is a category where districts will likely see a lot of repurposing of typical spending. If schools will be open in any capacity, they may need to increase spending on custodial supplies and protective equipment (masks, gloves, barriers) for teachers and students. If schools will be fully remote, there may be a number of different strategies employed for supplies: some districts are purchasing supplies and either shipping directly to students or creating pick-up stations; some districts are foregoing physical supplies and reallocating dollars to new digital resources for content and curricula.
For some districts, student technology is a subset of supplies and materials. This is an area where nearly every district will see increased spending as districts scramble to equip students with devices, hotspots, and appropriate digital learning resources. Overall, districts are likely to require increases in supplies and materials budgets as they organize remote and hybrid programs and accommodate instructional needs for a variety of scenarios.
What about all of those empty buildings? Surely, districts will see some savings from maintenance and staffing costs of physical schools?
The average school building in the US is over 50 years old—many are suffering from decades of disrepair. While there may be marginal savings from reduced utilities bills and custodial costs (if the buildings are truly closed), a certain amount of maintenance is still required to prevent an already massive infrastructure backlog from turning into a catastrophe when schools reopen. HVAC systems still require regular maintenance, and many districts are frantically trying to upgrade HVACs for improved ventilation.
Even if buildings are not being used, there is a certain level of basic maintenance required to ensure that these buildings will be safe for students to return to at some point in the future. Districts have to keep buildings free of rodent infestations, keep HVAC systems in good repair, and, in the event that the shutdown continues into the late Fall or Winter, keep temperatures warm enough to prevent disasters like burst pipes.
The modest savings on the marginal maintenance of buildings that accompanies daily use is likely being reallocated to sanitation and ventilation improvements or subsidizing home internet for students.
Transportation and Support Staff
One of the most obvious areas for reduced capacity with remote learning would seem to be transportation—bus drivers, department of transportation contracts, and crossing guards. Again, this isn’t as simple as slashing a whole category of spending because many new needs have surfaced to facilitate remote or hybrid learning.
There are a few different scenarios here: 1) If a district is operating a hybrid program, they may need the same transportation fleet in order to shuttle 30-50% of the students in order to comply with social distancing recommendations. Remember school buses? Kids are typically packed in like sardines. Bus routes would need to operate at significantly lower capacity in order to give students space during the ride. 2) If a district is fully virtual, many are repurposing bus drivers and fleets for meal delivery.
Paraprofessionals who support classroom activities and lead classroom teachers may seem like an unnecessary cost during remote instruction, but they actually may play a more important role than ever for student wellness and learning. While remote instruction can be great for broadcasting content, it makes small group instruction or 1:1 time extremely challenging as teachers juggle internet connection challenges and asynchronous logins due to bandwidth limits, device sharing, or parent work schedules. Paraprofessionals can be a wonderful resource for checking in with students and families, setting up small group sessions, or one-on-one support with students.
The Cost of Layoffs
Another challenge with personnel who may be temporarily under capacity is that bus drivers, support staff, and paraprofessionals must go through a rigorous application and hiring process including finger-printing and background checks in order to work for a district in a role with close proximity to students. Laying off a significant portion of these workers now may compound costs upon reopening when districts need to suddenly recruit and rehire to prior capacity levels.
The cost of personnel attrition is significant (over $2B annually for teachers alone—on a good year) and may outweigh the marginal cost of keeping staff on payroll during closures. Furthermore, many school district positions are unionized; alterations to union contracts would be costly at best, infeasible at worst, and could hurt future bargaining power. Lastly, school districts are commonly one of top major local employers; massive staffing disruptions could create severe economic ripple effects on the community that would be far more devastating than a few months of under-utilization.
All of these reasons help to explain why it’s difficult and costly to reduce staffing at school districts right now. Just because it is costly and difficult, doesn’t mean it would always be the wrong decision but school districts do not believe that they will be operating in primarily virtual or hybrid models long into the future. Taking on the cost burdens of a permanent transformation when we all expect students back in classrooms within the next 6 to 12 months does not make sense. We would break our existing system capacity at great cost, only to rebuild it at great cost shortly thereafter. Just like closing costs, moving costs, and other expenses mean that selling and buying a new home out of state each time an appliance breaks makes no sense, dismantling our school systems because of 6-18 months of hybrid or virtual learning makes no sense from an economic standpoint.
Education Opportunities for All
Some arguments have been made that if parents and families were given education dollars directly, they would have the ultimate choice in spending education dollars in a way that best served their children. “If we just gave every family that $12,612,” the argument goes, “they could put it towards traditional school or child care or homeschool. Here is the biggest flaw in that argument: not everyone would get the average per pupil amount—it’s an average. In order to continue to uphold IDEA and insure equal access to education opportunities, some families may get as little as $3,000 and other families would get over $100,000. Wage indexes would also have to be taken into account for matters of equal access to services: in DC, the minimum wage is $15 but next door in Virginia, it’s $7.25. School districts spend public education dollars more efficiently because of the benefits of economies of scale and communal resources—a few students with the most severe disabilities are entitled to private transportation and one-on-one instruction, but for the most part, many or all students in a school or district benefit from shared resources in a cost-effective manner.
For a child with no exceptional needs, a stay-at-home parent, and a household income with plenty of cushion in the budget for private extracurriculars, $4,000-5,000 probably affords a fine virtual education; but over the past 65 years, the United States of America has evolved, renewed, and improved its commitment to providing equal access to education for all students. All children are entitled to a free and appropriate education regardless of race, sex, creed, wealth, zip-code, or ability. Sharing resources is not only the most equitable but also the most cost-efficient way to deliver free and public education to all.
Brown v. Board of Education (1954), The Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Title I (1965),Title IX (1972), Section 504 (1973) and IDEA (1975), No Child Left Behind (2002), and the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) are judicial decisions and federal laws that protect and affirm this commitment to all American children. These laws have undeniably created additional costs for the provision of education services and compliance; we bear these costs collectively because it is simply the cost of upholding foundational American values for all.
This article is Part 2 of our three-part series, The Cost of COVID-19 for Schools & Families, which examines the hidden costs of COVID-19 on families and school districts.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jess Gartner is the founder and CEO of Allovue, where edtech meets fintech - #edfintech! Allovue was founded by educators, for educators. We combine powerful financial technology with education data, giving administrators the power to connect spending to student achievement. Jess has been featured as one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 in Education (2015, 2016 All-Star), The Baltimore Sun’s Women to Watch (2013), and Baltimore Magazine’s 40 Under 40 (2013). In 2014, she was recognized as the Maryland Smart CEO Innovator of the Year in the Emerging Business category. Before founding Allovue, Jess studied education policy at the University of Pennsylvania and taught in schools around the world, including Thailand, South Africa, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. She taught middle school humanities in Baltimore City and received her M.A. in teaching from Johns Hopkins University.