The cost of reopening schools amid a pandemic? IBO projects NYC will need an extra $32M a week.

An elementary school student in class wearing a mask
New York City’s Independent Budget Office said the cost staffing and cleaning schools amid the pandemic would add up quickly. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

How much more will it cost for New York City schools to reopen their buildings amid a litany of new health and safety mandates and additional staffing needs?

An estimate from the city’s Independent Budget Office, released Thursday, puts the weekly price tag at $31.6 million for staffing, cleaning, and coronavirus testing, among other expenses. Conducted at the request of Councilman Mark Treyger, the IBO analysis found that that these costs fall on multiple city agencies — not just the education department. 

“It’s possible that some of the costs can be reimbursed with future federal packages or any other type of aid that might be available,” said Sarita Subramanian, supervising education policy analyst with the IBO. “I think the point we were trying to make is that these are costs that, up front, the city will have to find funding for in some way.”

The actual costs are in flux as the city continues to change course, delaying the start of in-person school for most students. At the same time, families are still opting into fully remote learning and teachers continue to get medical accommodations to work from home. But the IBO offers a first look at the financial toll of reopening city school buildings during the coronavirus pandemic and as the city faces a $9 billion deficit over two years. Potential state budget cuts could further strain city coffers — though the state canceled plans to withhold some money from districts at the end of this month. 

The education department questioned the IBO estimate. And on Thursday morning, as Mayor Bill de Blasio announced another delay in the reopening of school buildings, he told reporters that the city will spare no resources to ensure a safe reopening, saying “it’s a budget priority” and the city will make “cuts and changes if that’s what it takes.”  

The IBO projected that hiring additional teachers could cost $19 million a week, and that extra custodial labor and cleaning supplies could add up to $5.6 million a week. Additional weekly costs could include $1.7 for masks, $1.6 million for promised coronavirus testing, and $1 million to hire 400 nurses from the city’s Health + Hospitals systems. Some of these cost estimates could rise, Subramanian said, noting transportation and cleaning costs could also balloon. 

The costs account for what state officials are requiring of New York districts. They don’t include capital costs, such as upgrading ventilation systems — a huge safety focus of educators and many families — or purchasing new laptops or tablets for students. It also doesn’t include spending associated with 3K and pre-K programs run by community-based organizations.

The mayor has for months pleaded with state lawmakers for permission to borrow $5 billion in order to avert layoffs and boost city services, but he insisted this week that the city budget has “some flexibility” and can cover for all the requirements needed to reopen schools safely. 

The IBO report didn’t study if there is actually enough money in city coffers to cover costs, but noted that future federal relief and existing school budgets could pay for some of the expenses. 

Their analysis assumes the education department will have to hire 20% more staff, or 11,900 teachers, to account for those who were granted accommodations to work from home full time and other staffing needs associated with remote learning. But such staffing costs are “particularly uncertain,” the budget office acknowledged. The city’s recent decision to walk back its promises of daily live instruction could ease some of the demand for more teachers.

The principal’s union previously estimated that principals have requested 10,000 additional teachers this year. A spokesperson for the education department noted that the city is “not hiring additional staff at the level IBO is projecting.” De Blasio pledged Thursday to infuse 4,500 additional staff into schools, of which at least 45% are currently department employees, and is figuring out additional staffing needs at middle and high schools.

Katie O’Hanlon, a spokesperson for the education department, said the IBO estimates “do not account for our latest updates and, in some cases, are fundamentally misunderstanding our budgetary operations.” 

“The mayor has been clear that the safe reopening of city schools is a budget priority, and we will have the resources needed to ensure all students are healthy, engaged and supported,” she said, adding that the department is reviewing the IBO estimates.

A department official said health and safety supply costs are “significantly overstated” because the city has access to wholesale government pricing. But Subramanian said all of those estimates “were taken from the city’s financial management system” and what various agencies have already reported spending on such supplies.

Treyger said the estimate was more reason for the state to grant the city borrowing authority or send more funding its way. The latter is a big ask, as the state faces its own multibillion-dollar deficit, though many advocates have demanded raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy.

“I continue to reiterate to my colleagues in government that, in order to safely reopen our city’s schools, we have to identify new funding to address the extraordinary new costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Treyger said. “The new IBO estimates, in concert with the ever-changing guidance from the [education department] as it struggles to operate within existing resources, demonstrate the extent of the need.”

Cost of Reopening New York City Public Schools: $31.6 Million per Week

Additional Staff Needed: $20.4 Million / Week

Assumptions: A 20% increase in teachers is needed to replace the 15% that opted out and to staff remote learning. The estimate assumes more than 3,700 DOE employees who are not teaching currently but are licensed can be moved into instructional positions.

  • Teachers (including masks): $19,379,111
  • Nurses: $1,012,800

Custodial: $5.6 Million / Week

Assumptions: Includes costs for masks, nitrile gloves, face shields, disposable gowns, and eye protection. A 50% increase in costs relative to fiscal year 2020 COVID-related supplies. A 12.5% increase in contract cost.

  • Custodial Supplies: $2,803,977
  • Labor Cleaning Costs: $2,236,778
  • Custodial Staff Personal Protective Equipment: $519,175

Transportation: $1.7 Million / Week

Assumptions: Includes costs for masks and nitrile gloves for employees and masks for the 30% of students who will forget. 1 electrostatic cleaner per 20 buses per bus company and one hand sanitizer per bus per week. A 5% increase in contract cost.

  • Labor Cleaning Costs: $1,561,791
  • Student and Employee Personal Protective Equipment: $141,097
  • Electrostatic Cleaners and Foaming Hand Sanitizer: $35,793

Costs for COVID-19 Testing: $ 1.6 Million / Week

Assumptions: $70 per test. 15% of all students and school-based staff that have opted for in-person instruction, including teachers, administrators, other support staff, custodians, school safety agents, school food service staff, and nurses.

School Staff Personal Protective Equipment: $1.7 Million / Week

Assumptions: Masks for all school staff; additional PPE for nurses, paraprofessionals serving students with disabilities, and school food services employees.

Students’ Personal Protective Equipment (Masks): $302,477 / Week

Assumptions: 58% of NYC students opt for in-person instruction, and 30% of those students need masks.

Nursing/Safety Supplies: $264,706 / Week

Assumptions: Includes cost of hand sanitizer, thermometers, oximeters, and electrostatic sprayers.

Social Emotional Learning: $0 / Week

Assumptions: Existing contracts will be used to provide professional development to staff to provide support to students.

Source: The City of New York Independent Budget Office ;  New York State Education Department Reopening Guidance; New York City Reopening Plan; city’s Financial Management System; Department of Education 2019-2020 Demographic Snapshot.

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