Chicago school board approves $75 million to tackle COVID-19-related school needs

To give the school district financial flexibility to respond to unexpected needs that have cropped up since the coronavirus response shut down schools, the Chicago Board of Education approved up to $75 million for emergency response services. 

Those funds, approved unanimously by the board at its monthly meeting on Wednesday, would cover relief such as food aid the district already has been providing, but could also cover future needs like computers and iPads for students who need them to engage in remote learning during an extended school closure. 

“We won’t know the full cost of this until this pandemic is over,” schools chief Janice Jackson said at Wednesday’s fully digital meeting, broadcast live on the district’s YouTube channel. “Much of this is to give us the flexibility to respond quickly.” 

Even before fears of the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools across the city, the financial reality of Chicago Public Schools was both precarious and political. 

The district has long argued it is cash-strapped, and most recently has been juggling the costs of a new teachers union contract with ballooning pension payments and a need for more funding from the state. 

But critics, chief among them the Chicago Teachers Union, have said the district could find funding if needed and pushed for a promise for nurses and social workers in most Chicago schools as part of its recent strike demands. 

Board members said they were expecting the district to get funds from a federal coronavirus relief package, or from the state, which declared a state of emergency in part to release new streams of funding.

But board member Lucino Sotelo warned against assuming that the school district has been hiding a pile of cash. 

“It’s not like we had this $75 million slush fund sitting there,” Sotelo said Wednesday. “We still have to find a way to make this work, which will force us to make some hard decisions later on.” 

The first formal report on how the district uses the $75 million will be due at the July board meeting, but Jackson promised to provide updates before then. “We have been making a lot of decisions since this crisis first hit, including … keeping a tally of the cost of COVID-19,” Jackson said. “We know there is a need to keep people abreast of this in the coming months and we fully intend to do that.” 

In a statement, the Chicago Teachers Union asked that the funds, which it called a “blank check,” be used to make sure all students had digital devices so none would be cut out of e-learning, but also to ensure that students had strong learning and social supports when they returned to the classroom. 

“We’ll never get the days back that we’ve lost with our students because of this pandemic, but we can leverage additional funds to ensure that students who confront gross inequities have that much more support when they return to school,” union President Jesse Sharkey said in the statement. 

Youth organizing group Voices of Youth in Chicago Education said they wanted to see funding for mental health support for young people who were dealing with the difficulty of being at home with little personal space, as well as the difficulty of understanding the larger changes and uncertainty around the coronavirus epidemic. 

Jackson echoed that uncertainty, and the district’s willingness to meet school needs as they arose, in her response to a board question about how the $75 million could be used.

“The cost will be far more than any dollar amount we can put out there,” Jackson said. “And we won’t know the full cost of this until this is over.”