Laptop distribution

Kris Kaminski, an English as a second language teacher at McCaskey Campus, helps coordinate iPad and laptop pickups for School District of Lancaster families Thursday, April 2, 2020. 

A Pennsylvania school safety fund created in the wake of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, has now been refocused for costs related to COVID-19. 

School districts statewide, including in Lancaster County, are reaping the benefits despite grave uncertainty around what the year might hold. The funds can go toward anything from hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies to bolstering technology programming and functionality, especially for districts that plan on online-only instruction or a hybrid of in-person and remote learning. 

The school safety grant has allocated $150 million to 779 eligible Pennsylvania school districts and charter, cyber charter and technical schools. But as schools continue to plan for a number of scenarios this year — including the hybrid plan recently endorsed by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration — the grant funding could be redirected if the health crisis forces schools in another direction.

The grant’s tight timeline, however, forced districts to make seemingly impossible decisions about how to spend the funds months before the school year begins, some school officials said — compounding an already difficult decision in the balance between health and the desire to get students back in the classroom.

Unlike the general CARES Act funds, the safety grant dollars must be spent by the end of October. Michele Orner, superintendent of Octorara Area School District, said it was this tight timeline of the grant that was most frustrating for her — especially since a draft grant proposal was due in June and Octorara won’t announce a plan for the school year until Aug. 3.  

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Orner added that opening up her schools involves one set of costs while moving virtual could mean an entirely different set of costs. 

“Our needs since June have changed, and a lot of that is due to the guidance and directives from the state Department of Health and Department of Education and so many public health agencies that don’t necessarily agree,” Orner said. “You keep asking yourself who’s in charge, and when who’s in charge continues to be a moving target, it does really make it hard to plan for the grant.”

Phillip Gale, the assistant superintendent of Penn Manor School District, acknowledged that while it was difficult to pinpoint what the district would need back in June, and expressed frustration at sometimes “contradictory” guidance, he said the district knew they wanted to use the safety grant for laptops. 

While the district previously provided laptops for students in grades 4-12, the grant will now cover laptops for students in grades 1-3. The district will now be officially 1:1, with the exception of kindergarten. Gale said the district learned this past spring when instruction was moved exclusively online that for some students, technology was a “tremendous problem.”

“We’re not saying we’re going to put a first grader in front of a laptop all day, but this is a great resource and it opens up a lot of avenues for teachers to utilize different programs,” he said. “You need (health) equipment in order to open up, and so if we go online (this fall) have we just wasted that money? We didn’t know.”

Kirsten Kenyon, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, the state agency awarding the safety grants, said schools can modify their grant awards “as needed,” so long as they are addressing certain activities related to COVID-19. 

The School District of Lancaster received approximately $550,000 through the grant, said Kelly Burkholder, a spokeswoman for Lancaster schools. The money will supplement technology costs related to its hybrid reopening plan, including “devices for students.” 

She said funds will also go toward a new visitor management system, which includes kiosks in each building to record all visitors, including health questions and a log for contact tracing. 

The additional safety grant comes after the district received nearly $5.2 million in general CARES Act funding, which will be used for purchasing additional supplies and personal protective equipment, Burkholder said. With no increases in state aid, the district was facing a $13.2 million budget gap, which forced a tax hike, spending of reserve funds and program and staff cuts.

The grant’s flexibility could help schools should they choose to shift their plans for the school year as the pandemic continues to unfold. 

“The one fundamental constant of the gradual reopening of the pandemic shutdown has been that nothing is absolutely certain and that circumstances can change overnight,” said Jonathan Heintzman, a spokesman for the Lancaster County Career and Technology Center, which received $90,000 from the safety grant. Heintzman said the Lancaster CTC will spend the funds on items like thermometers, sanitization supplies, Chromebooks and Internet connectivity or hotspots for students in need.   

Outside of Lancaster, the Bethlehem Area School District diverted nearly $60,000 of its safety grant award to purchase Wi-Fi hotspots, $50,000 for cleaning machines and almost $40,000 for face shields, thus preparing them for in-person or remote learning instruction, or a mix of both, depending on if coronavirus cases swell.

School districts funded by tax revenue are facing budget shortfalls as costs to keep schools open rise. The state is providing flat funding for public schools for the 2020-21 school year, leaving districts faced with choosing between property tax hikes or staff and programming cuts — or both.

The additional safety grant funds just aren’t enough when compared to rising health and safety costs.

“That money is a drop in the bucket against potential costs,” said Bethlehem Area School District Superintendent Joseph Roy, whose district has received $720,525 in the school safety grant. 

Roy said, however, additional CARES Act funds allocated to individual school districts — a one-time distribution — is helping schools mitigate health risks and supplement budgets. The Bethlehem Area School District received $3.2 million in general CARES Act funds, which don’t need to be fully spent until 2022. The federal dollars helped the district fill a $2 million budget gap. 

Roy said the Bethlehem Area School District was able to avoid raising taxes and furloughing workers, but the district has had to stop the planned expansion of a “highly successful literacy initiative” and is no longer able to hire the new social workers it had wanted.

“Additional funding is needed for costs we are just starting to be able to anticipate,” Roy said.

Several Lancaster districts, like Eastern Lancaster and Elizabethtown, said the safety grant gave them much-needed wiggle room in already tight budgets to spend the CARES money on other coronavirus-related needs over a longer timeframe. 

Cyber charter schools were also guaranteed $90,000 through the safety grant. But Richard Jensen, the CEO of the Agora Cyber Charter School, said his school will not accept those funds. Records indicate Agora received about $2 million in CARES Act funding — more than many public school districts. 

Cyber schools throughout the state scored over $9.5 million in CARES Act funding, despite being able to transition to remote learning much easier. 

“Our school is able to meet the health, safety, and security requirements for protecting our students and staff,” Jensen said. 

Brian Hayden, the CEO of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, on the other hand, said his school did accept the $90,000 safety grant — along with the $2.3 million they received from the general CARES Act.

He said the school normally enrolls between 9,500 and 11,000 students per year. Enrollment inquiries are up 68 percent compared to this time last year, Hayden said.

And with nine regional offices across the state Hayden said the safety grant provides the charter school with important additional resources. 

Hayden said the school is making investments in purchasing protective equipment and plexiglass for the lobbies and for offices used for in-person enrollment and orientation purposes. He said he is also hoping to use the funds for improved technology for special education students and professional development, with a focus on bringing students back to school “after having a disrupted school year and summer of COVID.”

“Even though we are a cyber school, we still eventually will have staff back on site,” he said. “This allows us to have additional resources to make sure our buildings are clean and that we can provide masks to keep us safe while they’re on site.”

As Orner and other school officials stare down a historically challenging upcoming school year, she said she is grateful for the support of her “kind and caring school community.”

“We’re in for a wild ride this school year,” she said.

Jordan Wolman is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association.