School districts around Maine are facing an end-of-the-year deadline to spend coronavirus relief funds, forcing them to scramble to use the money and raising questions about how they will sustain their current operational models after December.

Gov. Janet Mills has allocated $329 million of the $1.25 billion the state has received in CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Funds to pre-K through grade 12 schools. However a deadline from the federal government stipulates the money must be spent by Dec. 30.

“It’s not about need,” said Gorham School District Superintendent Heather Perry, who chairs the Maine School Superintendents Association funding committee. “Every school system in the state needs these funds, just because there are so many things we’re doing that cost money that we need to do to keep our schools open. The problem is, especially in rural areas, the need to expend the funds in that timeline.”

Some rural and smaller districts face challenges of having enough staff to apply for the grants in time and ensuring they will have access to goods and services before the deadline, Perry said. Districts must submit grant applications to the state to get approved for the funding, and while they have until Jan. 29 to submit reimbursements, the expenses must be made by Dec. 30. Nationwide shortages of devices and shipping backlogs haven’t helped.

In Buxton-based School Administrative District 6, Superintendent Paul Penna was submitting his application Thursday for the last $2.9 million available to the district under the second round of funding. He said planning has been hard because the district learns every day about new challenges as it adapts to the hybrid system and health and safety regulations.

Just last week, Penna said he learned the life skills program was having trouble adapting its culinary classes in which students would normally prepare meals as a group and sell them to the school community. “These are the types of things superintendents are finding as we get deeper into hybrid learning,” Penna said. “There are different things coming up that are needed to meet the needs of kids. What are we going to learn about in December or January that we won’t have the funds to support?”

In York, school officials said they have targeted expenses for all the funding they’ve been allocated, but the deadline has been frustrating, especially when it comes to the question of how to fund new personnel hired to reopen schools.

“Superintendents are frustrated, and I believe state officials are frustrated too,” said York School Department Superintendent Lou Goscinski. “I would prefer to have less money, to be honest, and spend it over the year than have all this money we have to spend by the end of December.”

York has been allocated about $2.3 million total. The first round was spent on personal protective equipment, desks, hiring additional personnel, video production to inform families about reopening plans and the importance of wearing masks, and other things. The district plans to spend a large portion of the second round of funding on air ionization systems.

“After December, we will still have the equipment we purchased,” Goscinski said. “The challenge will be to continue funding personnel brought in under this grant money.”

In Portland Public Schools, the district is exploring whether $4 million of the $6.5 million it’s been allocated in the second round of funding could be used to make direct payments to families for COVID-related expenses including child care as well as other things like lost wages or supplies and materials for supporting children at home.

Superintendent Xavier Botana said the idea was rejected by the state in the application submitted Thursday, but the district is still working with them on ways to execute the idea. “The rationale is it’s not a customary expense for schools, and so they determined that it’s not an appropriate use of the coronavirus funds,” Botana said. “We’re working with them on what scenarios could we work through that would allow us to use that money for that purpose. If it’s not schools is it the city? Is it a nonprofit? Are there different ways we can use the funds to advance that purpose that will be allowable?”

Both Botana and the Portland schools finance director, Miranda Fasulo, expressed concern over the Dec. 30 deadline and restrictions on the ability to use the funds for ongoing costs, such as software subscriptions or staffing during a school finance committee meeting Oct. 8.

“It’s quite frankly scary to have this much money to spend and be concerned that somehow after the fact there’s going to be some statement of, ‘That’s not actually allowable,’ when I go to bill it,” Fasulo said at the meeting. “It’s like a double-edged sword. And then after that it’s just so many decisions. A lot of the things we need have enduring costs and do these things make sense to do for a month or two?”

Botana also expressed concerns about the Dec. 30 deadline at the meeting, especially as related to staffing, and he said Friday that maintaining the level of staffing without more relief funds remains a concern. “We can’t take $2 million from that $6.5 million to pay for those salaries in the second half of the year,” he said at the meeting. “Those salaries were necessary to open school because of the way we’re opening school, but if we don’t change the way we’re opening school, we still have those costs. It’s like we can do it to open school but then we have to close school because we can’t do the same things that we did to open it. It’s one of those things that just feels insane about all this.”

Some families in Portland schools have said they would like to see the money put toward community partners programs to provide before- and after-school activities and relieve child care needs.

Jean Rank, who has three children in the district and is an art teacher at Amanda C. Rowe Elementary School, said while she thinks the district has done a good job reopening in the current hybrid model, she would like to see in-person opportunities for high school students and child care support expanded.

“I would like to see more opportunities for all kids to have instruction, especially while it’s safe in Cumberland County,” Rank said. “If not instruction, at least opportunities for them to connect with peers or teachers in ways that support their social or emotional health. Being home alone so much is hard for kids.”

In an email Friday, Maine Department of Education spokeswoman Kelli Deveaux said the department recognizes that the federally imposed deadline creates a tight timeline for schools and that many of the costs related to preserving the health and safety of staff and students will continue beyond Dec. 30. She said Gov. Mills, Education Commissioner Pender Makin and their counterparts around the country are urging Congress and the White House to provide additional flexibility.

Discussions on a second round of coronavirus relief have stalled in Congress, but all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation said Friday they support more flexibility for the current funding. On Oct. 1 the House approved a $2.2 trillion COVID relief package that includes extending the deadline for use of CRF funds through Dec. 31, 2021 and an additional $175 billion for K-12 education.

“For the safety of our students, teachers, and schools the Senate needs to finally meet the House halfway and agree to pass our compromise relief bill,” Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree said in a statement.

“Schools throughout Maine are taking on additional costs to protect their students and staff – and as the virus remains prevalent across the country, it is clear that these challenges will continue into 2021,” Sen. Angus King, an independent, said in a statement. “Congress should adjust the deadline for spending state and local aid funds to reflect this unfortunate reality.”

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