Fully reopening Maine’s K-12 schools could conservatively cost $328 million – or more – because of the additional staffing, buses, protective gear and other adaptations needed to deal with the coronavirus, the state’s top education official said Tuesday.

Education Commissioner Pender Makin said that bringing students and staff back to school statewide this fall is “a very idealistic and hopeful vision but not particularly likely.”  Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

But Education Commissioner Pender Makin acknowledged that such estimates are, in some cases, a “wild guess” based on assumptions about how and when schools can safely reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“They are estimates assuming that everybody needs the same things,” Makin told lawmakers. “And you know what? Not everybody is going to need the same things. So this is always going to be an estimate.”

The Maine Department of Education has said that officials in Augusta, not local school boards, will make the call about reopening schools in consultation with state health and emergency management agencies. Schools closed to in-classroom instruction in March, and Makin said officials are discussing various reopening scenarios, including delayed starts and “hybrid” models that combine classroom-based instruction and remote learning.

Makin said bringing all students and staff statewide back to school this fall is “a very idealistic and hopeful vision but not particularly likely.” But she provided members of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee with some rough estimates for full, in-person instruction.

Using national estimates, Makin projected that schools would require $151 million through December to fill 20 percent of staff positions – from teachers to school bus drivers – because some employees will be unable or unwilling to return for health reasons. That figure would rise to roughly $300 million for the whole school year.

Purchasing enough personal protective equipment, or PPE, for students and staff would require another $27 million. The additional space requirements associated with “physical distancing” in classrooms could add another $25 million to lease facilities or bring in portable classrooms that are already in short supply.

And then there’s the issue of getting students to and from school.

Makin said initial estimates for additional buses and drivers “hurt our eyes” when it was suggested that only one student could be safely seated per row. But even a conservative estimate of needing to increase the bus fleet by 20 percent to allow for more spacing between students would carry an estimated $55.8 million cost.

All told, Makin said, the current estimates for full, in-person instruction would be $327.9 million based on the general assumptions applied to all schools.

A classroom sits empty at Scarborough Middle School on March 20. For the coming school year, the Maine Department of Education has said that officials in Augusta, not local school boards, will decide whether to reopen schools in consultation with state health and emergency management agencies. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“It’s the best answer we can give you right now,” Makin said. “It’s not as specific as you need eventually.”

Steve Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association and the Maine School Boards Association, said school districts scrambled to implement lunch programs, staff support and help students connect remotely.

Bailey said many school budgets were trimmed during the 2019-20 school year to reduce costs on taxpayers, and that concern is only heightened for the new fiscal year given towns’ financial crunch and higher school costs because of COVID-19.

In addition to the costs for PPE, new technology and additional staffing, there are also concerns about higher legal costs. Bailey said monitors may be needed all of those buses to ensure that children are not sitting too close to one another and are wearing masks.

“We have a concern with the availability of staff, who is going to be able to come back to school and be prepared to come back to school, and will additional staff be needed?” Bailey said. “Superintendents have a huge concern about the availability of appropriate PPE … and what those costs will be, and how much will be needed both for students as well as for staff to safely return to a school setting.”

Maine has received $1.25 billion in federal funds through the coronavirus-related CARES Act. There is a nationwide debate about how that money can and should be used, but Gov. Janet Mills has said she wants input from the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee before making allocations.

But it remains unclear what role lawmakers will have in making those final decisions.

The committee has been holding remote hearings in recent weeks to hear about needs. Lawmakers are also bracing for an enormous financial hit to the state’s tax coffers, potentially necessitating deep spending cuts to the state budget.

Republican have been calling for Democratic leadership to bring lawmakers back to Augusta to begin delving into these financial issues and to reassert some control over decisions about Maine’s economic reopening plans.

That’s a point that Rep. Sawin Millett, a former committee chair and veteran Waterford lawmaker who served as commissioner of the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Affairs under Gov. Paul LePage, made on Tuesday when he said, “Republicans want to get back together on the third floor and do something.”

“I’d like to be more than a listening committee of 13 and have no authority and responsibility, or no accountability for putting things back on a more permanent, affordable and prioritized course for the short and long-term,” Millett said. “It makes me wonder: Is our role just to be listeners and let someone else do all the heavy lifting? Or do we and our 173 other counterparts, who are duly elected legislators, have a voice in this process as well?”

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