Schools could need up to $175 million to reopen safely this fall amid COVID-19 pandemic, according to Tennessee schools chief

Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn speaks with the media at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences on Thursday, March 7, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn speaks with the media at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences on Thursday, March 7, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

It could cost Tennessee school districts $1 million to $1.75 million in cleaning and hygiene products and personal protective equipment alone to reopen schools this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn told senators on the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee that the Tennessee Department of Education estimates that it would cost $100-$175 per student just to get schools clean and safe enough to reopen.

"Acknowledging the fluctuation with local decisions, the cost to Tennessee will be somewhere between $100 to 175 million," Schwinn said during the virtual committee hearing Wednesday. "Certainly the CARES Act funding that is going to our districts will help support some of that, but it certainly is a significant need."

Tennessee received about $3.6 billion in federal COVID-19 stimulus funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and $260 million of that was allocated to the education department to disperse to local districts.

But many educators say the actual amount of funding individual districts received was not enough, and in some cases that money has already been spent to recoup extra costs incurred when schools moved online this fall.

"You've got the usual complexities of the funding and the reality is that from an operational standpoint, this will probably be the most costly year operationally," said Bryan Johnson, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools. "Whether it's additional costs for the additional cleaning of buildings, the additional cost to run more buses in order to separate kids, the need to add more staff - this will be our most costly operational year ... and you combine that with the fact that it is already a very lean, lean budget year."

Hamilton County Schools received about $10.8 million in CARES funding, but after handing over about $1.46 million to local private schools per U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' guidance, the district was left with about $9.2 million to use toward purchasing personal protective equipment, increasing technology access for students and preparing teachers to continue to deliver online instruction this fall.

And for now, additional funding for schools is unlikely in Tennessee. Nearly $150 million in additional funding for teacher and state employee pay raises was already cut from Gov. Bill Lee's $39.8 billion budget thanks to an estimated $1 billion revenue shortfall.

Local teacher groups including the Hamilton County Education Association and Hamilton County United have spoken out about the need for more funding for school districts this year.

On Monday, the Tennessee education department released a set of recommendations for reopening schools this fall - many of which were already being considered by districts across the state - without a plan for additional funding.

"The 40-page document released by the Tennessee Department of Education gave a range of suggestions that would result in a patchwork of scenarios across the state, and even within local districts," reads a statement from Hamilton County United representatives posted to the advocacy group's Facebook page. "Shockingly, the State's 147 districts are expected to do this with no emergency funding or additional financial support."

Schwinn testified alongside Nebraska Education Commissioner Matthew Blomstedt, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova and former U.S. Education secretary and head of The Education Trust John B. King Jr.

Many of the school leaders highlighted the need for concentrated attention on specific populations of students this fall such as homeless students, students from low-income families and students who were already behind academically; increased access to internet and technology to bridge the digital divide in both urban and rural areas; and the extraordinary social-emotional or mental health supports that students will need when they come back to school this fall.

Johnson acknowledged those are all issues Hamilton County Schools is grappling with.

"We look a lot like the state in terms of demographics," he said. "We have rural connectivity challenges and urban connectivity challenges, we have different populations of students. I think thinking through that, any kind of continued guidance around key triggers for opening and closing schools from the state is helpful."

Johnson, who unsuccessfully fought for $34 million in additional funding from the Hamilton County Commission last year in order to address students' social and emotional needs, said educators are concerned with providing enough supports to address student needs this fall.

"The reality of what we'll deal with in August is that you have a pandemic that has disrupted normalcy in regards to day-to-day operations, you have an economy that took a nose drive and that has affected some households and on top of that we have the conversation about how race and injustice has affected the community more broadly, and black households in particular," Johnson said. "Kids feel the weight of that trauma - it just permeates to the child. Teachers are absolutely going to have to work through that. Even separate from the historic events of the past months, you always have a need to support the whole child."

Contact Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

photo Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn smiles as she waits for any questions about her vision and expectations of the Partnership Network during the Partnership Network Advisory Board meeting in the Hamilton County Schools Board Room Thursday, March 7, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Schwinn commented on the fact that some of the goals listed by the advisory board are vague and that she hopes the board can solidify more specific goals this spring. / Photo by Erin O. Smith

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