COVID prep could prove costly for Region 16

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By Elio Gugliotti, Editor

Hand sanitizer and sanitizer stations for Region 16 schools are stored at the annex of district office in Prospect Aug. 20. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

PROSPECT — From hand sanitizer and plexiglass sneeze guards to iPads and additional staff members, the cost of opening schools in Region 16 amid the COVID-19 pandemic may add up to more than $1 million.

School officials estimate the region’s coronavirus-associated expenses could be nearly $1.07 million.

“It’s still a moving target every day,” Director of Finance and Business Operations Anthony DiLeone said.

The largest projected expense — about $410,000 — is for additional staff, including two more teachers to reduce class sizes at Prospect Elementary School, a Spanish teacher for Long River Middle School, two additional part-time armed security guards, and the equivalent of two and a half full-time custodians to keep up with mandates on cleaning buildings.

The laundry list of items features a host of personal protective equipment, including 40,000 masks for students and staff to use at an estimated cost $22,336 and 20 hand sanitizer stations for schools projected to cost $25,000.

The region, which is comprised of Beacon Falls and Prospect, is preparing to start school Sept. 1 with a hybrid model that will blend in-person instruction and remote learning at home.

Officials also expect to buy a variety of equipment and software programs with distance learning in mind. There’s 160 iPads — one so each student in kindergarten and first grade can have their own device to use — with an estimated price tag of $73,672, as well as $9,597 for hotspots for families without reliable internet access.

Air filtration is also expected to be a large expense. Region 16 Superintendent of Schools Michael Yamin said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is requiring schools use a specific air filter, which is more expensive than what the type the region uses now, and run air handler units three additional hours a day to get more air flowing through schools.

The new filters cost $5,163. Running the air handler units longer is projected to cost an additional $75,000 in electricity, according to officials.

To meet a mandate that school buses are less than 70% filled, the region may add an additional bus run for Prospect Elementary. The additional bus costs $50,000.

Yamin said the additional bus may not be needed, if there is a large number of parents who chose to keep their students home and do full distance learning.

As of Aug. 20, 170 of the region’s 1,995 students, about 8.5%, had opted to do just online leaning at home, Yamin said.

Yamin said that number is about what he expected. He said if gets much larger, officials will have to review how they’re approaching teachers for distance learning.

The roughly $1.07 million would be above and beyond the region’s $40.7 budget for this fiscal year. Officials are hopeful state and federal funds will cover the expenses.

DiLeone said the district is slated to receive $75,000 from the state from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

The state earlier this month announced an additional $160 million in federal funds to help school districts safely reopen and cover costs related to the COVID-19 outbreak. It was unclear last week how much, or when, the region would receive money from this round of funding.

DiLeone said the region will also apply for reimbursement through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund.

Yamin said if the district is not fully reimbursed for its costs, officials will have to look to take money from other areas in the budget. That could mean cuts in staff and supplies, he said.

“All this is contingent upon schools staying open,” DiLeone said.

If schools are forced to close and the region turns to distance learning full time, Yamin and DiLeone both said the region could realize savings in some areas — like renegotiating its busing contract. Closing schools would also avoid some of the projected COVID-related expenses.

“If we go full remote learning, then that may help balance it out,” Yamin said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported Region 16 spent $1.07 million related to COVID-19 expenses. The region did not spend $1.07 million related to COVID-19 expenses. The $1.07 million is what school officials estimated the costs could be. This story has been updated to reflect that.