Masks are on superintendents’ back-to-school shopping lists. Some leaders wonder if there will be enough.

Shari Obrenski, a high school history teacher in Cleveland, usually spends about $500 each year on paper, pencils, markers and tissues for her classroom.

This year, her back-to-school list includes hand sanitizer, wipes and disinfectant spray — none of which Obrenski can find in stores. She hopes the Cleveland Metropolitan School District can get them.

“Reopening safely across the country is going to cost billions of dollars,” said Obrenski, who’s also the president of the Cleveland Teachers Union.

Cleveland schools will be online for the first quarter of the school year after a surge of COVID-19 cases in the area. 

As rising infections put the first day of school in limbo across the country, school districts are trying to make sure they’ll have enough cleaning supplies, masks and other protective equipment to bring students and staff back safely.

“There’s an expectation for school districts to kind of figure this all out on their own,” said Elleka Yost, government affairs and communications manager for the Association of School Business Officials International. “It’s unfortunate because we’re not just dealing with an economic issue, but also with a global pandemic.”

But many state governments are lending a hand, in some cases distributing equipment obtained from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

Wednesday afternoon, President Donald Trump announced the federal government will provide up to 125 million reusable masks to school districts across the country. 

The masks, a mix of adult and youth sizes, can be used for students, teachers and staff, said Carol Danko, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services. Some will come from current supplies and some will be manufactured. 

While that’s helpful, Yost said, “it simply does not begin to address all the challenges district leaders and educators are wrestling with as they plan to safely reopen schools.” She said Congress should pass another relief bill with $200 billion for schools to pay for everything from online learning technology to modified food-service operations.

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The cost of masks and other protective equipment has factored into some school districts’ decisions to start the year remotely.

The Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified school districts will start the year online and have called on lawmakers to pay for personal protective equipment, or PPE.

“We frankly do not want to spend a single dime on PPE when that money should be going toward the education of our students,” said Superintendents Austin Beutner and Cindy Marten.

Seventeen of the country’s 20 largest school districts — affecting more than 4 million students — plan to reopen only with online classes, according to Education Week.

Other districts say they want to offer in-person classes, but they’ve moved back their start dates. Some districts in the Midwest and South forged ahead with in-person reopenings over the past two weeks; a handful have closed after outbreaks or have asked hundreds of students to quarantine.

Masks, protective equipment will cost school districts millions

A typical school district with about 3,700 students will need about $1.8 million to reopen this fall, according to associations representing superintendents and business officials. That would pay for cleaning supplies and equipment, extra staff, and masks for staff and students who don’t bring them from home.

Some schools have ordered these supplies. But there’s a shortage of protective equipment and cleaning supplies nationwide, said David Lewis, executive director of the Association of School Business Officials International. Some school districts are still waiting for their plexiglass, masks and cleaning supplies to arrive, Lewis said.