Following the money: It took roughly $730k to get Niles students back in class

Following the money: It took roughly $730k to get Niles students back in class

NILES, Mich. - How much does it take to bring kids back into the classroom during a pandemic? Well, this week on The Learning Curve we asked the tough questions to officials at Niles Community Schools.

The district has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on just cleaning supplies alone. But that’s not the only cost officials have to think about.

“We have a huge delivery coming today from Berrien RESA, which is our regional education center, they receive a grant through the state where we're going to get a whole lot of masks brought to us today. So that will help my stockpile of that," Tracy Hertsel, the Director of Student Support Services for Niles Community Schools said as workers bring in a giant mask, glove and sanitizer shipment.

When you think about the costs of this pandemic, school cleaning supplies may not be at the top of the list. But it’s a real issue many school districts are facing.

“We've never planned for a pandemic before. So we sat down in early March. Got started talking to the superintendent and the business manager," Lewis Evans, the Director of Operations for Niles Community Schools said. "And we all talked about, okay, what are we going to need? How much are we going to need? We didn't really know."

“We really didn't get clear guidance until the governor's roadmap came out," Hertsel said. “And once we receive that, then we start responding to the mandates and things that we had to do. And one thing I started right off the bat getting were masks for kids and for staff, I ordered a great amount because the lead time on them - at that time everybody was trying to get them. It was a couple of months out.”

With thousands of schools now purchasing PPE in bulk, there was a major lag in shipping times - and a major increase in prices.

“The products have increased in cost, but we need them. So it's hard to get some of the things," Hertsel said. "Right now rubber gloves are something we're really challenged with. And again, if you think about that, we need them for cleaning, need them for our teachers to use, but also emergency services throughout the united states or after those same products they use for their service. So it's a tough one. And there's been some I just shipping problems from overseas to get those."

When talking about budget, Hertsel said it's in the hundreds of thousands.

“For the fall semester, you know, we're probably in the neighborhood of 400,000. And that is just for cleaning supply, the increased the cost of that the barriers, the mask, the gloves, all the types of things that we need. Shields are another thing that had been a big purchase that we purchased," he said.

Evans said that's a much different number than previous years.

"If I remember correctly, maybe around 80, 90 grand? Okay. $90,000. So not really anywhere close to where we're gonna be this year," he said.

So what does the cost look like per student? We asked the district's business manager. With $50,000 worth of hand sanitizer, $60,000 worth of masks and $146,000 worth of cleaning supplies we divided that by the estimated headcount of students learning in person which is just under 3,000. And it's approximately $92 per student per year.

But where is all this money coming from? A lot of it comes from federal and local grant money.

"What we're trying to do is stay out of our just general fund money and trying to do that. So if we keep seeking grants or anything we can pick up to help support this because this is definitely unplanned," Hertsel said.

And it’s not just getting the equipment, but staff to operate it as well.

“There's not a lot of people in the pool out there. We did hire one here that works four hours a day, every day, part-time in high school
To help us out. I'm looking for more. So those are the challenges we face. Even if you have the extra money for the grants and the federal option. If the people aren't there - it doesn't do you any good," Evans said.

As time goes on officials say getting the proper PPE and other cleaning supplies will get easier but looking forward, the future is still uncertain.

“We already discussed it. And we don't have any idea what's coming down the pipe next year. Because once this year is gone, and the money the extra money is gone, and now we're spending our normal budget, but the needs haven't went away. So yeah it is a very big concern. Every district has got the same fears," Evans said. "We always look out no matter if we have a pandemic or not. And this one here is really scary so we’ll see how it shapes out.”

Now, all of the numbers you heard in the piece are estimates. In fact, that $92 per student doesn't take into account other things like plastic barriers, posted signage and other costs associated with things students may see or use while in school. And things vary day to day and month to month and can change in a second.

If you have a question or concern regarding your school, reach out to us at [email protected]!

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