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Minnesota school districts scrambling to prepare for an uncertain academic year are tallying the millions of dollars they'll have to spend — and that they could lose — as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are laptops and software and wireless hot spots to buy, in case classes again need to move online. If students return to school in person, there's also a long list of purchases to make buildings safe: sanitizer and hand-washing stations, plexiglass barriers, extra classroom supplies so students don't have to share.

Social distancing requirements may necessitate additional bus drivers to ferry smaller groups of children and more custodians to keep buildings clean.

Meanwhile, with some families assessing the risks and considering online school programs, home schooling or other options, school district leaders are worried about declining enrollment — and a related drop in revenue.

State government, which provides the largest share of school funding, is facing a $2.4 billion deficit. And with the economy on shaky footing, passing local funding levies to make up for the budget gaps will be a challenge.

Ask superintendents in districts of all sizes what they expect their budget to look like in a year and they all agree: They just don't know. Making any single plan is impossible, because an announcement on whether schools will reopen, remain closed or implement a combination of in-person and distance learning isn't coming until the last week of July.

"The picture is kind of cloudy right now," said Jeff Drake, superintendent of Fergus Falls Public Schools.

The expenses started adding up in March, when the schools closed and quickly shifted to distance learning. Districts had to buy more devices and hot spots for students without internet connections. For some, those costs added up to millions; from mid-March through the end of May, Minneapolis Public Schools spent nearly $4.2 million on COVID-related expenses.

Without families paying for school meals or after-school care, districts' revenue plunged — all while schools were required to keep supplying meals for pickup and free child care for children of essential workers. Some districts also kept paying staff whose wages are usually supported by those fees, even though they were no longer working. Now, they'll have to take money meant for other salaries or programs to make up the difference.

"Without [fees] coming in, without students in school, obviously our costs were outpacing our revenue for those programs," said Mark Stotts, director of finance and operations for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district.

Big Lake Schools, northwest of the Twin Cities, held on to food service and child-care staff for about two weeks in March and then began furloughs. Superintendent Steve Westerberg said the district would have accumulated a $500,000 deficit if it had kept everyone on the payroll.

Districts will get some relief from the federal government. Minnesota schools' share of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act adds up to $177 million. It's distributed based on districts' poverty levels and technology and summer school needs, among other factors.

School leaders said the money will help, but it's not enough to account for what's coming this fall.

Unknown costs

Last week, the Council of Chief State School Officers estimated that schools nationwide will together need up to $245 billion in additional federal funding to safely reopen. A separate estimate from two national associations of school administrators put the reopening costs for an average district — one with about 3,700 students — at $1.8 million.

For larger districts, those numbers are likely to be far higher.

Leaders of St. Paul Public Schools, which last year had nearly 37,000 students, are weighing a wide-ranging list of variables.

Like all Minnesota school districts, they are following the state's direction to plan for three separate scenarios: continuing with all-online instruction, bringing students back to school without strict social distancing, and a hybrid model in which schools would follow regulations about class sizes, building and bus capacity and hygiene, among others.

St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard said the hybrid option comes with the most questions.

A committee is surveying buildings to figure out if classrooms need to be modified with partitions.

It's determining whether students might need to alternate the days they attend school and how many additional bus routes would have to run.

"We have a $30 million annual transportation contract, so it gets expensive fast in a district our size," he said.

The state's largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin, is buying another 1,700 laptops to ensure all of its students have devices at home, should schools have to continue with distance learning.

Superintendent David Law said that expense and others necessitated by the pandemic will probably force the district to delay other spending.

Plans to overhaul the district's science and English curricula to comply with new state standards, for example, will probably be put on the back burner.

Rural schools' worries

Smaller districts, particularly in rural areas, have their own concerns.

Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, said some district leaders in communities near a state line are worried families will attempt to enroll their children in another state if Minnesota takes a more cautious approach and keeps students home.

Blue Earth Area School District Superintendent Mandy Fletcher said declining enrollment in recent years meant the southern Minnesota district was already dipping into its reserves. Voters narrowly rejected a local funding levy last fall, and the district is now bracing for more costs, like trying to run more buses on lengthy rural routes.

With the state budget in the red, Fletcher knows schools can't count on additional money in the near future. So with few other options on the table, her district will ask local voters for help, again. A smaller operating levy will be on the ballot in November.

"It's never ideal to have to rely on the property owners contributing to the funding for schools," she said, "but that's the times we're in."

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790