Newark schools spend millions on safety supplies while students wait to return

Newark Superintendent Roger León displays a face mask and shield. The district has stockpiled protective gear needed to reopen schools, but students have yet to return. (Newark Public Schools)

Piled high inside Newark’s vacant school buildings are heaps of mostly unused safety supplies.

They include more than 720,000 face coverings, 35,000 desktop barriers, and over 3,000 gallons of hand sanitizer that district officials bought in preparation for students’ return this fall, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of purchase orders from July through October.

Yet despite the huge stockpile of supplies, most students haven’t come back to school. The district twice postponed in-person learning this fall due to an increase in coronavirus cases and concerns about school building ventilation. As a result, the majority of its roughly 36,000 students never returned to classrooms and remain at home, where they’ve been taking classes remotely since March.

Of the $18.3 million in federal pandemic-relief money the district received, it spent at least $3 million on supplies needed for in-person learning, according to the Chalkbeat analysis of district spending records. The spending illustrates the district’s extraordinary effort to safely reopen schools — an effort that has yet to bear fruit as classrooms remain largely empty some three months into the school year.

Newark has put some of the safety supplies to use, including at Thirteenth Avenue School, where students took in-person summer classes. (Newark Public Schools)

To be sure, the supplies haven’t all sat unused. A small number of students attended in-person summer school, a limited number of students with disabilities received in-person services this fall, and district employees have continued coming into schools to clean classrooms and distribute grab-and-go lunches.

In addition, a chunk of the emergency funds went toward devices and programs for online learning. 

Meanwhile, the district is still holding out hope that students will step back into schools this January — though the alarming statewide surge in coronavirus cases could torpedo those plans. At a school board meeting last month, Superintendent Roger León said if he had previously known how sharply cases would spike this fall, he might have extended remote learning even longer.

“If I would have had the numbers that I have today,” he said, “I would have been pretty hard-pressed to say that we’re returning in January.”

As part of a pandemic-relief package approved in March known as the CARES Act, Congress provided $13.2 billion in aid to schools. The law gave districts wide latitude in how they could spend the money — it could pay for cleaning supplies and laptops, mental-health services and afterschool programs, or even staff salaries. 

Newark spent about half of its $18.3 million on supplies and equipment, nearly $6 million on salaries and benefits, and about $3 million on services, according to a spending breakdown that Chalkbeat obtained through a public records request. 

Chalkbeat also analyzed purchase orders for about $4.9 million of those expenditures. Roughly $3 million of that amount went toward in-person learning expenses, including:

  • $846,000 on desktop barriers;
  • $737,000 on disinfectant wipes, antibacterial cleaning products, portable air purifiers, and other sanitizing supplies;
  • $368,000 for face coverings, including cloth masks with school logos;
  • $346,000 on hand sanitizer and dispensers;
  • $140,000 on signs with safety messages, such as “Wash your hands” and “Please wear a mask”;
  • $71,000 on classroom materials, including workbooks and teaching tools for students with disabilities;
  • $48,000 on bus routes.

Despite the emphasis on reopening schools, the district also spent about $1.8 million of the analyzed funds on supplies that could support remote learning. Those included:

  • $1 million for online math and reading programs;
  • $596,000 for desktop computers, laptops, related hardware, and technical support;
  • $111,000 on 650 wireless hotspots;
  • $73,000 on bags and containers for take-home meals.

The analyzed funds only represent a portion of Newark’s pandemic-related spending. For instance, the district purchased a total of 1,350 hotspots using federal funds, León told the school board. Donors have also given the district hundreds of laptops and hotspots this year.

Still, because of the level of need in Newark, the federal aid has not covered all of the district’s coronavirus costs. District officials have previously said the relief money was not enough to pay for all the devices required for remote learning, and last month León said the district still needs another 2,500 new laptops to replace older models that are prone to malfunctioning. 

Newark is not alone in watching pandemic expenses swamp its federal aid. 

Education leaders have said for months that the initial round of federal relief wouldn’t be enough for this school year or beyond, and Congress has yet to pass another aid package. And in New Jersey, more than 60% of district superintendents and finance officials said their slice of the CARES Act money was insufficient to cover the full cost of protective equipment, educational technology, and building upgrades, according to a July survey by the New Jersey School Boards Association.

“Congress and the federal government need to partner with the state and school districts in providing additional resources to deliver education safely and effectively during this public health emergency,” said Lawrence Feinsod, the group’s executive director, in a report on reopening schools.

Gov. Phil Murphy has funneled additional federal aid to districts, including about $54 million for devices for online learning and $100 million for school reopening costs. Yet declining tax revenues during the pandemic forced Murphy to scrap a planned funding boost to schools, leaving Newark with $36 million less in state aid than it had counted on this school year.

Meanwhile, pandemic expenses continue to gobble up funds. Newark is spending $7 million in relief money to install new air filters and ventilation systems across the district, an official said last month.

The race to buy laptops and upgrade buildings with the emergency aid points to a deeper problem: chronic underfunding, said Mark Weber, an education policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive think tank. Some New Jersey districts with the greatest need receive far less state and local aid than they are due according to the state’s own funding formula.

Newark and other underfunded districts with crumbling school buildings and limited computers had more difficulty reopening schools this fall, Weber said. While many factors contributed to districts’ decision to delay in-person learning — including local infection rates, union pressure, and some families’ fear of students returning to classrooms — funding challenges also played a role, he said.

In an analysis, Weber found that the majority of New Jersey students in “severely underfunded” districts were not given the option of returning to classrooms this fall.

“At least in part, this has to be about funding,” he said. “This sort of chronic inequity that has been going on for years — now it’s finally catching up with us.”

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