In a live-streamed meeting on Friday, state officials and state elected representatives hotly debated formulas for “equitably” reimbursing public and private schools for unexpected expenses caused by the mandated closure of classrooms to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed by the United States Congress and signed into law on March 27, includes $99 million of aid for elementary and secondary schools across Connecticut to reimburse costs which include the expense of new technology for alternative distance learning, the added expenses of complying with safety requirements to reopen classrooms in the fall — and for private schools — the additional cost of partially-refunded tuition.
For such disasters as Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Harvey and Maria, as well as for recent wildfires, past policy has been to distribute federal aid equally to every student.
Breaking such precedent, state officials say instead that they intend to distribute federal aid equitably by Title 1 formulas based on qualifying need.
“There is a national dispute over what the language in the act provides for,” Demsey said. “Our legal interpretation would distribute funds based on how they are distributed through Title 1.”
In other words, instead of distributing funds based on costs incurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, a Title 1 formula would calculate funding based on the percentage of low-income students attending each school.
“There is a requirement in the CARES Act for equitable services,” explained Kathy Demsey, chief financial officer for the state of Connecticut. “This provision would provide funding directly to school districts, who would then provide funds to local catholic, private or independent schools with qualifying students.”
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, expressed concern that distributing funds solely according to Title 1 formulas would unfairly punish private schools that were closed by executive order of the Governor, but not offered the financial support given to businesses so far.
“Private colleges are getting funding from the CARES Act, so it doesn’t make any sense that private K-12 wouldn’t get the same,” said Osten. “These schools have been required and will be required to do all the same things as the public schools and have suffered significant financial difficulty.”
Osten warned of a potential ripple effect if catholic schools are left entirely to their own devices.
“There are 30,000 children that go to catholic schools around the state, do we want them all to come into a public school environment next year because their schools have closed? We don’t have the seats for them,” Osten said.
State Rep. Kate Rotella, D-North Stonington, expressed concern that towns like North Stonington, which typically do not receive large grants of Title 1 funding, will come up short covering the costs of the pandemic.
“Whether or not we typically receive funding based on Title 1 grants, we are all going to have the same needs right now,” Rotella said. “With this method, there will be towns that receive barely any.”
Without including private schools in the calculation, Rotella’s hometown of North Stonington would receive $37,003 through the CARES Act, according to the state Department of Education.
Lyme-Old Lyme regional schools would receive $41,197, Essex-Chester-Deep River grades 7 through 12 would receive $24,567 and Essex grades k through 6 would receive $14,016.
“I get it,” said Department of Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona, “There is no one solution. There are many communities that are grappling with this that are not going to get almost any funds. CARES funds are not going to take care of everything.”
Although funding would be distributed based on Title 1 formulas, it would not be limited to uses usually restricted to Title 1. Approved uses for CARES funding include coordinating between schools and families during long-term closures, improving online learning opportunities, purchasing educational technology, providing mental health services and supports and providing activities to address the specific needs of children with disabilities.
A provisional approach
In response to criticism, state Department of Education officials have decided to move forward with plans to distribute CARES Act funding based upon Title 1, but Demsey is now recommending that districts delay spending it until a final decision is made at the federal level.
“As we previously communicated, the grant application calculates the funding pursuant to Title 1. However, for informational purposes, we will also be sharing with each district an estimated calculation of the equitable services funding in accordance with [United States Department of Education] Secretary DeVos’ guidance. We encourage you to discuss with your local counsel whether it is appropriate to reserve additional funds in escrow for the purpose of equitable services while this continues to evolve,” read a communication from the department shared with all school districts this week.
The application for districts to receive CARES funding opened on Friday, June 19.
Connecticut has also applied for a federal Department of Education Rethink K-12 Education Models Grant that could provide as much as $180 million to the state. According to the department website, the program can fund “microgrants for families” for technology and “educational services,” virtual learning programs “so that students will always be able to access a full range of subjects, even those not taught in the traditional or assigned setting,” and “field-initiated models for providing remote education not yet imagined.”
“We are going to pursue any new money possible,” Cardona said. “Fixing the digital divide is a major focus.”
The Governor’s office has also designated up to $28 million to the state Department of Education to address long term fixes to a technology gap that has plagued efforts, by rural communities in particular, to accommodate remote relearning during the pandemic.
“We have established a rapid connectivity task force to help support connectivity challenges faced during COVID,” said Deputy Commissioner of Education Desi Nesmith.
For school districts struggling to budget for the additional purchase of personal protective equipment for the fall, Cardona recommended a municipal approach that would qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency 75/25 matching grants available to towns for the purchase of necessary supplies.