For the last several weeks, medical supply vendors have swamped Martin Pollio with flyers, emails, and phone calls. He’s one of their most sought-after customers.
Pollio, the superintendent of the 100,000-student Jefferson County district in Louisville, Ky., has made tentative plans to reopen school buildings this fall. To do so, he estimates his district will need to spend close to $10 million on face masks alone, in order to abide by recently issued state health guidelines.
“We understand that the safety and health of our students and staff is the most important thing for us, without a doubt,” said Pollio, who plans to start a formal procurement process for personal protective equipment, or PPE, next month. “But the logistics of this are not easy.”
As school districts move ahead with planning how and when to reopen, administrators will soon start buying masks, gowns, boxes of tissues, bottles of hand sanitizer, and jugs of bleach. The scale of purchasing is enormous: There are 55 million students and 7 million employees in public schools.
It’s an unprecedented and daunting shopping venture, superintendents and chief financial officers say.
Buying for an Uncertain Future
Without another round of federal bailout money, many school districts face deep budget cuts in the coming months. At the same time, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with state and local health departments, are issuing an evolving list of health guidelines that will require districts to collectively spend close to $25 billion on PPE and cleaning supplies, according to a study by AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
School administrators—new to the medical supply marketplace—are now asking: Which vendor has the sturdiest and most child-friendly masks? What sizes should they be? Who has the cheapest prices? How much should I buy?
And complicating it all is the very real prospect that schools may have to shut down again as COVID-19 continues to spread and new outbreaks hit. That could mean spending money on gear that doesn’t get used.
“It’s hard to know what next month will bring, let alone six months from now,” Pollio said. “I don’t want to end the year with 8 million masks sitting in storage.”
To operate any form of in-person instruction, administrators must reduce class sizes, expand online learning, and quadruple bus routes in order to maintain social distancing. All of this will come at a price that many high-poverty districts can ill afford.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said in a recent appearance on CNBC that he will encourage the federal government to help cover some of those PPE costs for schools. And it’s possible that in the future, because the pandemic was declared a national emergency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, will reimburse districts for PPE equipment and cleaning costs.
But in the meantime, states and districts are on their own.
Navigating an Unfamiliar Market
As the virus raged through the spring, the PPE market was plagued with fraud and price-gouging. While it’s calmed down in more recent months as supplies have become more widely available, some states have stepped in to assist districts, providing sample shopping lists and contact information for pre-approved vendors.
In California, the state’s health department has set aside for schools 47,000 no-touch thermometers, 14 million cloth face coverings for each of its students, and more than 143,000 bottles of hand sanitizer.
“Because of the scarcity of supplies, the state has stepped in to keep people safe,” said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
Illinois’ Emergency Management Agency purchased a cloth face mask for each one of its 2 million students.
And Texas’ education department is distributing to schools this summer 53 million disposable masks, 1 million face shields, and 600,000 gallons of hand sanitizer on pallets, even as it had to delay releasing specific guidance on what schools need to buy. Record-setting numbers of new coronavirus infections in Texas over the last several days have complicated planning for school reopenings there. A tentative draft of guidance had loose restrictions on whether students and teachers should wear masks inside schools.
Other states, such as Arizona, have tried to help districts by loosening rules around procurement so districts can more quickly select PPE vendors.
North Carolina has prescribed what districts need to buy to prevent the spread of the virus. On the list:
- A quarter gallon a day of hand sanitizer (at least 60 percent alcohol) for every school entrance, exit, and classroom;
- Five cloth masks for every student, teacher, and staff member;
- 10 disposable masks per day for school visitors and students who forget to bring their masks;
- One box of tissue per week on every school bus, two boxes of tissues each week for every elementary and middle school classroom and one box of tissues each week for every high school classroom;
- Two pairs of disposable gloves per day for every staff member tasked with temperature screening students.
The purchases are “strongly recommended,” but not required and, other than providing each district with a “start-up kit,” the state has no plans to pay for it.
Last week, Patrick Miller, the superintendent of Greene County schools in Snow Hill, N.C., gathered his staff members around a table and started adding up the costs.
The 3,000-student district is rural with large numbers of poor families. It has struggled for several years straight to recruit and retain teachers and bus drivers.
Said Miller: “When we got to $600,000, I told them to stop because we’re already bankrupt.”