The West Bloomfield School District in suburban Detroit has clear plans for fall: One option has students learning at home three days a week to limit the spread of the coronavirus, buildings deep cleaned routinely and buses carrying smaller loads and running more frequently.
What's less clear for West Bloomfield – and for most other districts in America – is how to pay for the plans.
The country's unprecedented economic pause to slow the spread of the coronavirus has depleted sales and income tax revenue for states, and, in turn, for schools. Preliminary estimates predict jaw-dropping state budget holes that some education funding experts warn could cost in the range of 300,000 teaching jobs.
Districts are scrambling to respond to a double whammy: a reduction in money from states and an increase in costs to operate safely as the pandemic wears on.
"It's a major challenge," said Gerald Hill, superintendent of West Bloomfield. "We have increased costs due to social distancing, due to all of the (personal protective equipment), due to unusual transportation requirements and additional deep cleaning requirements. If we’re cut by 20%, but it’s costing us 20% more to operate, we’re at a 40% cost difference."
A $3 trillion House bill backed by Democrats in early May included nearly $1 trillion for states and local governments, but Republicans are balking. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday lawmakers would decide in the next few weeks whether there would be another relief bill, according to CNBC. Even if there is, McConnell signaled it would have to be narrower in scope than what the House passed.
Time is running out; many state and school district fiscal years begin July 1. Around the country, school boards and grassroots groups pressure lawmakers to send more stabilization funds before then.
"Schools are instrumental to restarting the economy," Hill said. "It makes very little logical sense to delay another round of funding."
Funding may drop up to 30%
Because states and school districts can't pass budgets that aren't balanced – unlike the federal government, which can operate with a deficit – school leaders are preparing for dramatic cuts to staff and services in the upcoming fiscal year.
Michigan expects a $3.2 billion state budget shortfall, including a $1.1 billion deficit in the school aid fund, Hill said. That could translate to a $700 drop in the roughly $9,200 West Bloomfield receives per student this year – and potentially another $700 drop next year if there's no federal intervention.
"I've been in education for 50 years, and I have never seen this level of financial complication," Hill said.
Though the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act passed at the end of March included $13.5 billion for school district budgets, that money could be used only for costs related to the pandemic, not to plug budget holes.
West Bloomfield received $253,000 for its 5,700 students. The money helped pay for a new computer system to aid with online instruction.
More money went to high-poverty districts. On average, school districts nationwide got about $286 per student, said Michael Griffith, a senior researcher at the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides research on education.
Districts will need $230 billion – and up to $305 billion – to stabilize their budgets and avoid massive layoffs, according to Griffith's calculations.
Consider: In the recession that started around 2008, K-12 schools received $64 billion in federal aid, about five times as much as they've seen for the pandemic, Griffith said. Revenue, which dropped about 8.6% during the Great Recession, is predicted to plummet as much as 15% to 30% this time.
Even with the higher level of federal aid during the recession, the nation saw losses of about 120,000 K-12 teaching jobs, Griffith said, setting up the possibility of even greater job losses this time.
"Without additional federal dollars, we’re going to see pretty massive cuts," Griffith said. "If schools get nothing more (from the federal government) than the CARES Act now, we could see two to three times that loss in teaching positions."
Pressure on lawmakers to act
Across the country, school boards are passing resolutions that call on federal lawmakers to support a new round of money for schools, and community groups also sound alarms.
In Philadelphia, where the school system projects a $38 million shortfall, district leaders encourage state residents to contact state and local lawmakers each Thursday with calls and letters to maintain funding for schools.
More than 60 superintendents of large districts signed a letter calling for an additional $200 billion in federal relief for K-12 schools.
"I think it’s political suicide for congressional Republicans and the Trump administration to not provide more aid to state and local governments," said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank in Washington.
After all, Petrilli said, an election is coming up, so another relief bill is likely; what's uncertain is how much will be in it for schools.
"There’s no guarantee federal money is coming through or how big it’s going to be, so it’s smart to plan for cuts," Petrilli said.
Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said that to some degree, districts always want more money. He said it's important to watch what safeguards are attached to any new federal money, such as requiring districts to prove that they're actually using it to bolster instruction.
"I think there's a legit case that some new funds are needed," he said. "But what is the public getting for its money?"
States face biggest hits
States that rely heavily on sales taxes will be hit hard by the crisis. Griffith said he worries about states that rely on declining oil revenue. New Mexico, for example, projects cuts to its state budget of 22% to 32%.
Florida was among a number of states that passed a budget before the pandemic hit, which means lawmakers will have to adjust it to account for cratering sales tax revenue. Florida doesn't collect income tax, and sales taxes are usually bolstered by a thriving tourism industry. But after Disney World, Universal Studios and cruise lines shut down, that money dried up.
In April, sales tax collections in Florida were down by $598 million – or 24% below expectations, according to a state report. That makes up the largest part of the budget and provides most of the money for education in the state.
In Broward County Public Schools – Florida's second-largest school district with more than 268,000 students – analysts are preparing scenarios for accommodating a 10%, 15% or 20% cut in money from the state. District officials worry they could look at a $146 million shortfall.
"As a school system in one year, we’ve never experienced a $146 million budget cut," said John Sullivan, Broward's director of legislative affairs.
That figure looms despite $30 million in savings achieved through a hiring freeze on 134 positions, cutting all department budgets by 10% and eliminating all travel. Some of that is the kind of budget tightening districts pursue nearly every year. Other measures, such as the hiring freeze in Broward County, are in response to financial worries brought on by the coronavirus.
Most districts don’t have the flexibility to deal with these financial headwinds, not after having to race to put together feeding and online instructional programs for students no longer attending school, said Michael Casserly, head of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large, urban districts.
"The combination of that leanness plus the unexpected costs they're having to incur is a perfect storm in combination with these expected revenue shortfalls," Casserly said. "I don’t know how Congress or anyone else expects us to handle this through the usual cost-cutting."
Back-to-school costs: $20M for masks
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine announced the need to cut $775 million from schools, universities, Medicaid and state government offices to balance the state's budget by the end of the month. Those cuts include $300 million from what would usually be sent to schools.
Like many districts, Ohio's must spend more money on certain pandemic-related items. Columbus City Schools officials predict they'll need to spend an additional $20 million this year on disposable face masks for students and staff, $10 million on hand sanitizer and $25 million on more computers so every child can connect to their studies from home on specified days.
"As we add these theoretical numbers up, we’re getting into the hundreds of millions – and that’s not even addressing what’s happening with teaching and learning," said Scott Wortman, spokesman for Columbus City Schools.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed cutting 8% of what school districts got last year under the state funding formula – totaling about $6.4 billion, according to EdSource, an education news site.
In response, superintendents from six of California's largest districts warned Newsom and lawmakers that they may not be able to open on time if the governor's proposed cuts go through.
"The notion that schools can continue to operate safely in the fall with a decreased state budget is not realistic," the letter said. "We cannot in good conscience risk the health and safety of our students and staff by returning to the classroom prematurely and without funding for the necessary precautions given the continued lack of a national testing program and a lack of clear understanding of the impacts of coronavirus on young people."
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.