Inside School Spending: What educators are buying to prepare in a pandemic

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Technology and personal protective equipment are top of schools' purchases as many prepare for virtual and potentially in-person learning this upcoming school year.

Other supplies educators are stocking up on range from COVID-19 signage to tents to 'webcam robots'.

The ABC11 I-team surveyed dozens of schools, requested district's finances and dug through public contracts to uncover what educators are buying to keep students safe.

Do you have questions about sending your child back to school? Let us know.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)



"Safety is just at the forefront of all of this. How do we keep our students and our staff safe?" said Mary Ann Wolf, the executive director of Public School Forum of North Carolina.

North Carolina is providing schools across the state with PPE, but almost every school and district is also securing additional supplies.

The Wake County School Board announced earlier this week the district obtained $3 million worth of PPE.

Durham Public Schools spent more than $120,000 on face masks, gowns, sanitizer and thermometers based on financial records obtained by ABC11.

Face shields and desk shields were also a hot item, with many school installing Plexiglas in lobbies and in classrooms.

Hand sanitizers in hallways and every classroom will be the norm at many schools as they purchase hundreds of stands and dispensers.

One charter school in Wake County plans to buy touch-less toilets, sinks and towel dispensers.

Cleaning supplies



"First thing has to be safety. Obviously, kids go to school to learn but if they're not safe and we don't believe they can learn in a safe environment, we can't bring them back," said Scarlett Steinert, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools director of Safe Schools.

While many public school districts have decided students will begin virtually, they are still preparing for cleaning costs once students do reenter the buildings.

In May, Wake County Public School System awarded a $171,000 contract for a sanitation system. The district is also looking to obtain spray bottles and pumps, along with peroxide disinfectant cleaner, according to public bids.

St. David's School plans on working with a janitorial group to "apply an anti-microbial barrier treatment designed to reduce the spread of disease using green, patented, FDA-approved technology to all area surfaces and buses prior to the start of school and maintained as necessary." The school will also using a misting machine to disinfect surfaces and buses.

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At the Exploris School, leaders were able to buy "high-end air filtration systems" for every classroom.

In addition to supplies, Steinert said Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools will be increasing how much surfaces are cleaned. Surfaces---including door handles, copiers and desks--will be wiped down three times a day and emergency cleaning will be initiated if a positive case is confirmed in a building.

The district also bought foggers to use in buildings and on playground equipment.

Social Distancing



St. David's School and St. Timothy's School in Raleigh plan on adding tents on campus and using stadium seating and picnic tables to create outdoor classrooms.

Many schools are purchasing signs to remind students to social distance or to direct hallway traffic in one direction.

Wake County Public School spent more than $120,000 on COVID-19 signage to place around its schools.



Technology



Chromebooks and hotspots are top priorities for districts across the state. Districts from Gaston to Yadkin to Asheboro County all seeking hundreds of additional devices for students.

"DPS did some forward thinking in May and purchased about 20,000 Chromebooks for all of our students. So, this spring we were doing some remote learning which looked like some hard copy instruction as well as online, but now we are prepared to have all of our students to have access to our online learning," DPS School Board chair Bettina Umstead said.

Schools who had to scramble back in the spring to purchase additional resources, now say they are better prepared for virtual learning.

"So we had to order a lot of the MiFi's and hotspots back in March but the problem was everyone in the country was ordering them and it was backlogged and it was hard to get them in," explained Chapel Hill-Carrboro district spokesperson Jeff Nash.

Wake County Public School System is still finalizing a contract to buy 85,000 mobile devices, according to a publicly published bid.

Beyond devices and internet, schools are also buying digital subscriptions for virtual curriculum and e-learning resources.

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Schools that have decided on hybrid learning options are buying cameras to have on in the classroom to service virtual students.

St. Timothy's School in Raleigh reported purchasing, "Google Jamboards for every middle school classroom (which allow live streaming, simulcasting, and interaction between students/teachers on campus and at home) and "Swivl" webcam robots for lower school classrooms."

Miscellaneous COVID-19 expenses



Feeding students remains a top priority and top expense for many districts. Durham Public Schools reported spending $857,370 to fund nutrition services and another $1.2 million to contract with restaurants to supply prepared meals.

DPS also spent $50,000 on postage, a spokesperson said, to mail materials to families.



Chapel-Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board members approved a $60 stipend for staff to cover supplies related to working at home. The district paid a total of $202,835 for the stipend.



The financial toil



Many schools received additional funding from the state and federal government to help offset the unexpected expenses, but as the pandemic continues so do the added costs.

"There is a lot of questions around the strain on the budget. I'm really concerned about that. When we looked at our budget this year we are looking at a little bit of a budget gap and that did not include cleaning and additional resources for coronavirus," Umstead said.

It's a concern shared by districts across the state.

"Schools typically know what to expect and have a really good sense of the budget, but this year, it's not even just how much more there has to be cleaned and the depth of the cleaning, it's that supplies are so in demand that those costs have gone up a lot and we definitely hear that from the smallest districts to the biggest districts," Wolf said.

Wolf also explained districts are concerned about how enrollment might impact funding.

"There are families that are opting for homeschool or other possibilities, so right now we know that could affect our funding," she explained.

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Many school officials said more help will be needed if students want to return permanently to classrooms.

"We are going to need more funding from our local and state government in order to be able to return to any type of in-person instruction and to do that safely," Umstead said.
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