Everybody knows that schools operate on their own calendar. Their year starts in September instead of January and ends in June, not December.

But in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic, the federal government wants Maine schools to act as if they were on the same calendar as the rest of us.

The state has made $329 million available to local school districts out of the $1.25 billion in aid Maine received from Congress in March through the COVID relief package known as the CARES Act. Congress wanted to make sure that the money would be quickly put to work slowing the spread of the virus and mitigating the pandemic’s economic fallout, so it required that the funds be spent by the end of the calendar year.

School districts can apply for the money, but the law says they have to spend it by the end of the calendar year. New Year’s Eve might be the end of year for most people, but it’s just the halfway mark for a school system. And with shrinking prospects for more federal aid, this could be the districts’ only shot at help paying for the extraordinary expenses of trying to educate students in a way that’s safe for them, their families and staff. Like the school year, those costs don’t go away at the end of December.

Some of what the money can buy will still be serving students in the spring semester. Computers, protective gear, plexiglass barriers and other items won’t go away when the calendar changes. But running schools during a pandemic requires hiring additional staff for maintenance, transportation and teaching groups of students in person and remotely at the same time. Staff can’t be stockpiled.

School districts have enough challenges. They shouldn’t be forced to use their creative resources to find ways to spend money they may not need now because they know they might not have it when they do need it.

Maine Sen. Angus King issued a statement last week recognizing the problem and saying that Congress should adjust the deadline. He’s right, and they should not wait too long.

A COVID relief bill that commits more federal money to get schools through the entire school year would be the best way to do it. At the very least, however, school officials should know how much money they have to manage the pandemic, and they need to have flexibility to spend it in the ways that makes the most sense.

The calendar year is close to the end, but the school year has just gotten going. Since the COVID crisis is not going to go away soon, schools should not be held to deadlines that don’t make any sense.


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