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Palm Beach Co., Treasure Coast schools spending millions on coronavirus costs for fall school year

Districts buying PPE, equipment for virtual learning
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Safely Back to School
Posted at 12:01 AM, Jul 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-31 19:21:26-04

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The cost of teaching students during a global pandemic is adding up for schools from Palm Beach to the Treasure Coast.

COVID-19 already upended K-12 education, from virtual learning to a delay in returning to school this fall.

Contact 5 reached out to all five districts in our viewing area, asking how much it cost to cope with COVID-19.

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From laptops and computers for virtual learning to masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and other personal protective equipment, districts are spending tens of thousands of dollars, if not more, in preparation for the fall.

"We've never, even at my age, I've never gone through a pandemic," said Nicollete Owens, a high school teacher for St. Lucie County Public Schools.

"Teachers are already nervous," Owens told Contact 5.

St. Lucie Public Schools has spent $385,327.88 on PPE-related expenses so far.

"We get a large supply at the beginning of school. Is that going to be ongoing?" questioned Owens.

"Is that going to come to us every month, every week?"

Right now, St. Lucie Public Schools has a warehouse stocked with supplies purchased for teachers and students that includes masks, face shields to sanitizer.

Nicollete Owens
Nicollete Owens, a high school teacher in St. Lucie County, said she hopes the upgrade in personal protection equipment will be enough to create a safe environment this fall.

The St. Lucie County Public Schools isn't alone.

The School District of Indian River County has spent $78,674.99 on PPE, and the School District of Palm Beach County has spent more than $5.6 million on PPE-related purchases, even though its students will begin this fall exclusively with virtual learning.

The Martin County School District said they have spent "$1.4 million in COVID-19 related expenditures" through July 29, and estimate they could spend an additional $2.4 million this year.

MORE: Latest stories from Contact 5

Contact 5 reached out to the Okeechobee County School District for this story and is awaiting a response.

"I'm confident it's going to go well," said Eric Graff, an elementary school teacher at Morningside Elementary School in St. Lucie County. "I'm glad we had extra time to plan."

It's not just the cost of masks, sanitizer, gloves and face shields that's adding up. The transition to virtual learning proved costly for school districts as well.

 St. Lucie County Public Schools PPE warehouse
The St. Lucie County Public Schools has a warehouse full of barrels of hand sanitizer and boxes of masks.

The School District of Indian River County recently purchased 6,000 laptops for students who have opted into virtual learning this fall. In an email, the district told Contact 5 it spent $1,618,500 on the laptop purchases.

St. Lucie Public Schools have spent $7,909,823 to-date on laptops for distance learning, and the Martin County School District has spent $2.58 million on devices for virtual education and anticipates spending more money as well.

The School District of Palm Beach County has spent $22 million on computers for the more than 175,000 students attending its schools.

Graff told Contact 5 the two-week delay for the start of his school allowed extra time to prep for virtual learning.

"It's a huge undertaking. It's a big challenge. But teachers are so resilient," Graff said.

The two-week delay gave teachers extra time to prep social distancing plans, which Owens noted was a concern when returning to the classroom.

"We're supposed to be 6 feet or more apart. That's pretty hard to do in a regular classroom," said Owens.

While Owens and other teachers worry about the safety of teachers and students alike, school officials are left wondering how much the state and Federal government will contribute to offset the influx of COVID-19 related expenses.

The CARES Act does have some money set aside for PPE reimbursement, but only $13.2 billion of the CARES act is available for K-12 education for schools in all fifty states.