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Pandemic Costs Pile Up As Many Schools Remain Closed

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We follow up now on the story of financial trouble for schools. Rebecca Sibilia has been warning since May of an effect of the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REBECCA SIBILIA: We are looking at devastation that we could not have imagined a year ago.

INSKEEP: Today, new costs are piling up with the pandemic still keeping many schools closed. Here's NPR's Cory Turner.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: First, a little good news.

MICHAEL GRIFFITH: So we're not looking at a disastrous year this year.

TURNER: Michael Griffith at the Learning Policy Institute says the CARES Act helped states avoid a short-term school funding disaster. Remember now, schools get about half their funding from state tax revenues, which have taken a big hit. Thanks in part to those federal CARES Act dollars, instead of states facing cuts in the 20 to 30% range, Griffiths says it's just...

GRIFFITH: A bad year, (laughter) which sounds so - but it is between 15 and 20%, in that sort of range.

TURNER: And that's still really bad. Just look at how many school jobs have disappeared in the last year.

MICHAEL LEACHMAN: There are about 570,000 fewer local education jobs.

TURNER: Michael Leachman studies state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

LEACHMAN: Those are teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, secretaries, librarians, counselors.

TURNER: And Rebecca Sibilia, the school funding expert you heard at the top, says there's one big reason we haven't seen more cuts.

SIBILIA: That's because all of our elected leaders are putting their head in the sand.

TURNER: She says they're wary of making big cuts before the election. Instead, many state leaders are draining their rainy-day funds or hiding the pain with budgeting tricks. Leachman says states are also trying to stall...

LEACHMAN: Because they hope the federal government will step in.

TURNER: The CARES Act was seven months ago. And that money is largely gone. But it's not clear when or even if lawmakers in Washington will agree on another relief package for schools. Making matters worse - schools aren't just facing budget cuts but new demands.

REBECCA GIFFORD GOLDBERG: In this moment, I think schools, regardless of what their setup is, need to spend more money than they are used to spending.

TURNER: Rebecca Gifford Goldberg works at Bellwether Education Partners. And she says, think about it. Where kids are back, schools have to spend big on things like sanitizer and masks. If schools run online only, its extra laptops and Internet hotspots. These are new costs to go along with all those budget cuts.

GOLDBERG: And we haven't even talked about the financial impact of the catastrophic learning loss that we know is happening and has happened already.

TURNER: Many kids have likely lost months of learning, especially students from low-income families. And schools will need to spend a lot to catch them up - to hire teachers and tutors, shrink class sizes and maybe even extend the school year. And that's just academics. This pandemic has also set kids back socially and emotionally. And so going back to Rebecca Sibilia's dire warning from May...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SIBILIA: We are looking at devastation that we could not have imagined a year ago.

TURNER: ...That's not just budget talk about red ink and rainy-day funds. She's talking about children and what happens if an entire generation of vulnerable kids falls behind.

Cory Turner, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNWED SAILOR'S "OUR NIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.