(TNS) - As students head back to school, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will send 6.9 million cloth face coverings to New York this month for distribution to students, teachers and staff at schools across the state.
Masks arriving in September may prove useful to some schools, but most schools offering in-person learning have already had to procure thousands of face coverings and districts are unsure if they'll get reimbursed for those new costs, amid state budget cuts and limited federal aid.
The state's interim health guidance for school reopenings requires face coverings on school grounds, except during meals and instruction. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also recommended mask wearing in schools to prevent spread of the coronavirus.
The federal mask shipment is part of an effort by the federal health agency to send up to 125 million cloth masks to states for distribution in schools. The masks are intended to be prioritized for schools with low-income and high-needs students and also schools that are holding in-person learning, a senior HHS official said. They’re also intended for both private and public schools, the official said.
Many schools in the state opened their doors to some students this week and have already shelled out thousands of dollars to buy masks, gloves, face shields, wipes, cleaning solutions and plexi-glass dividers, among numerous other new coronavirus expenses. In the Capital Region, many schools had donated their extra masks and gloves to local hospitals facing shortages at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before Rensselaer city schools reopened Tuesday, the district coordinated with the county and the local BOCES to locate a reliable and affordable vendor for personal protective equipment, something the district never had to buy in such bulk, said Superintendent Joseph Kardash and School Business Official Meghan Heimroth.
The district has spent about $45,000 on personal protective equipment and additional cleaning supplies from spring until now and anticipates those costs to go up, Heimroth said. They already bought 4,000 child-size masks and 1,000 adult-sized coverings.
Kardash said the influx of masks from HHS will help his district but "it would have been more useful a month ago."
"Our masks will run out and our students are coming in with masks, but those masks will have to be replaced," Kardash said. "Anything is actually still helpful. Even the cloth masks have a life. They shouldn't be worn every day without being washed. So having students have more masks will still be helpful. It would have been more helpful if we had more planning, but that's not the nature of the times we're in right now."
Bob Lowry, communications director for the New York State Council of School Superintendents, noted that when disasters occur, responders urge individuals to donate money, not clothes or food.
“It is a bad thing to send masks? No. Is it the best use of resources? Districts need a lot of things," Lowry said. “Districts had to be ready for the opening of schools and make purchases already. They may already be adequately supplied with masks.”
New York schools missed out on the first wave of stimulus money because the state deducted the relief money from districts' annual foundation aid allowances. The state also froze foundation aid amounts this year due to the financial crisis brought on by the pandemic and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said that state education aid could be slashed by up to 20 percent mid-year if the state fails to meet its revenue goals.
“We need PPE. We need teaching spaces that are safe,” said Lori Caplan, superintendent of Watervliet City Schools, in a press conference Wednesday. “Face masks, hand sanitizers, this all comes at a cost. We can’t absorb that cost as well as cuts to our aid from 2019-20.”
Democrats and Republicans in Congress are concerned that the federal funding for education awarded to date is not enough. Both parties have proposed additional funding for schools in new coronavirus legislation, but they haven’t been able to agree on how much — among many other conflicts in the month-long negotiation.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency clarified its public assistance policy last week, stipulating it will not cover coronavirus-related expenses stemming from the daily operations of government and school activities as of Sept. 15.
After that date, FEMA will not pay for PPE for education institutions, unless it’s in connection with disaster response like an emergency feeding program, said Keith Turi, FEMA assistant administrator for recovery. It also won’t cover cleaning costs for schools. The agency will continue to pay for PPE for health care workers.
Turi insisted the policy change was not sparked by the Trump administration decision in August to shift $44 billion from FEMA’s disaster relief fund to pay for unemployment benefits.
“This is not a cost-saving measure,” said Turi. “Even in our non-covid disasters, our guidance is clear that we don’t cover the cost of day-to-day government functions or government facilities even if they are directly related to the disaster, the activities eligible are those direct actions for immediate threats to life and property.”
The face coverings from HHS will be shipped to New York and distributed by the state health department. The masks will come in child and adult sizes, a senior HHS official said.
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