Michigan schools need $1 billion to reopen safely, group tells Whitmer

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Reopening Michigan's K-12 schools safely this fall will cost districts more than $1 billion in unplanned expenses at a time schools face state funding cuts in the billions, according to an estimate by the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education.

Mark Greathead, president of the Lansing-based organization and superintendent of Woodhaven-Brownstown Schools, sent a letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday that noted the $1 billion figure was based on preliminary guidance from health departments on personal protective equipment and other efforts that will need to be taken to create a safe learning space for students inside school buildings.

Lorna Bryant, a custodian with RNA Facilities Management, sweeps the floor inside a Renaissance high school classroom, which was being cleaned due to the coronavirus, April 2, 2020.

Specifically, estimated statewide costs include:

• Masks, two per day for every student and staff: $35 million to $47 million per month

• Gloves, 100 pairs of disposable gloves available daily per school: $4 million to $8 million per month

• Thermometers: $6.3 million

• Cleaning and sanitation supplies: $25 million per month

• Online connectivity: $125 million to $200 million

• Continued food distribution if students are not in school all day, every day: $67.8 million

Without new funding allocated to cover the $1 billion in additional costs, Greathead said it would effectively cut or reallocate an additional $665 per-pupil or more from students’ education just for schools to be able to reopen their doors safely.

That's on top of state funding cuts Michigan districts are already anticipating, with a collective revenue drop of $2.39 billion estimated in the current and next year's state school budget.

Districts expect a cut of about $700 per student in state revenue this school year, which ends June 30, and another $700 cut from the state for 2020-21.

"While the list is in no way a comprehensive accounting of all of the added costs our districts will be faced with, you will see from what we have been able to cost out already in the attached document that reopening our doors while meeting all likely health and safety guidelines will, at a minimum, add more than $1 billion in new costs to school districts statewide for the upcoming school year," he said.

Greathead said schools need resources and answers on what local budgets will look like for the upcoming school year immediately.

"So that preparations can get underway to make any and all health and safety updates within their operations that are necessary prior to reopening their doors this fall," the letter said.

Robert Leddy, Whitmer's spokesman, said the governor has expressed the vital need for support and flexibility from the federal government to help ensure resources for students and educators.

"Governor Whitmer continues to work closely with Return to Learn Advisory Council on how best to have schools proceed during this global pandemic," Leddy said. "An executive order and a robust document called 'Michigan’s Return to School Roadmap' will be released on June 30 to provide details on what will be required and what will be recommended for schools.”

Gideon D’Assandro, a spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said "there have been members in the House and Senate who have been working on this issue and putting together a plan to help schools start safely in the fall."

That plan, which includes the estimated cost of safety precautions, should be announced soon, D’Assandro said.

Gerald Hill, superintendent of the West Bloomfield School District, said the $1 billion figure did not surprise him. In his own district, Hill expects an increased cost of $4 million to $5 million to safely reopen schools and meet undetermined health and safety guidelines. His proposed budget for the coming school year is $60 million.

"If you combined that increased cost with decreasing budget revenues, you are looking at a 30-40% shortfall," Hill said. "It would be virtually impossible to operate a school, to do it the way that would be safe for students and staff."

Hill said he thinks these additional reopening costs — if funds for districts do not come through — will force a conversation on whether students should return to buildings in the fall at all.

"I think it’s a good investment, if we are planning to reopen," Hill said. "If the budget is going to drive the conversation, I don’t see how school districts can absorb those kinds of costs. We can't."

Robert McCann, project director for the East Lansing-based School Finance Research Collaborative, said costing out the expense of preparing schools is a part of the discussion on whether students should return to classrooms.

"Parents want their kids back in class only if it's safe there," McCann said. "If we say we can't afford this, we maybe have to ask that question of whether we can have kids back in class. There is a cost associated with this."

Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said a national superintendents organization estimated that districts nationwide on average face an estimated $1.7 million in costs to safely reopen schools to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

"The $1 billion, that is a significant number and there is a lot of significant work to do," he said.

With the expected per-pupil cuts already coming for the next two years, Wigent said, "that is loss upon loss for schools."

Michigan educators have said they need federal and state support to continue to pay staff, provide services to students such as meals, and provide extensive safety measures for when schools reopen.

At least 300,000 students in Michigan lack internet access or a computer at home while they are shut out of schools during the pandemic, according to the survey by Michigan school officials.


Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.