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Back-To-School Shopping Means Spending Millions On Thermometers, Sanitizer And Air Filters For Kansas City District

KCPS staff organized hygiene and cleaning supplies in April 2020 to provide to families after schools closed.
15 and the Mahomies Foundation
Kansas City Public Schools staff organized hygiene and cleaning supplies to provide to families after schools closed last spring.

The earliest students will return to Kansas City Public Schools for in-person learning is Sept. 22, and only if local pandemic conditions improve. But the the district has already spent millions preparing for their return.

When schools reopen, one of the biggest challenges will be how to quickly screen students and staff for coronavirus symptoms.

The Kansas City Public Schools won’t bring students back until the city-wide numbers start decreasing, but the district has already installed digital thermometers at entrances for summer staff.

“If your temperature is over 100 degrees, it gives a red notice and says, ‘Hey employee, your temperature is outside of the safe zone, you need to return home and call your supervisor and HR for instruction on what to do next,’” said Linda Quinley, the district’s chief financial officer.

The district will use slightly different thermometers to take students’ temperatures when they do come back to school. These are tablet-like devices that can take a lot of temperatures quickly as students get off the bus.

But contactless thermometers aren’t cheap. Quinley said KCPS has already spent more than $5 million on cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment and everything else needed to reopen safely.

“We’re at about $500,000 worth of cleaning-related things like sanitizer and Clorox 360 machines. We’re at about $750,000 million on PPE. We’re at about $1.5 million on things that are facility-related. I’m changing out our filters in our heating and cooling systems to bring in outdoor air, which is going to drive up the utility bill,” Quinley said. “We’re installing sneeze shields on desks.”

The district has also spent nearly $3 million on instructional technology, including devices, hot spots and software licenses for students who will be learning 100% online this year.

KCPS Superintendent Mark Bedell had hoped to begin the school year in person because so many students rely on the district for social, emotional and family support. But when cases started soaring in Kansas City and across the metro, the school board decided to start the year virtually instead.

Constant pivots and changing recommendations from the health department have made Quinley’s job harder. KCPS students could hypothetically be in schools as early as Sept. 22, if there’s a 14-day decline in infections from the first day of school.

But if the pandemic continues to spiral out of control, school buildings might not reopen at all in 2020.

“I try to push back when folks say, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to need to order to meet the standard we’ve set,’” Quinley said. “I ask, ‘Do we have to order that now? Or can it be delayed?’ The challenge is, between technology and PPE, if we didn’t order them in July, there was no chance we’d have them in September or even October.”

Right now, the demand for devices like Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots far exceeds supply. Every school district in the country is trying to get their hands on them. KCPS ordered devices in June for delivery in July. Quinley has since been told not to expect them until September, and it takes time to install all the software students and staff need to learn and teach.

As a stopgap, KCPS will distribute some older devices nearing the end of their useful lives. These devices will be replaced with new ones when they become available.

As costs add up, districts can ask the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for help. State education officials have $60 million dollars in pandemic relief funds to assist with everything from meal delivery, internet connectivity and personal protection equipment.

But Quinley is worried that KCPS won’t be able to access those funds without help from Jackson County.

“We’re very excited to see these DESE programs. The connectivity, the meal delivery, and the supplies. But I don’t know if we’ll be able to get the required county match on that,” Quinley said.

Jackson County received $120 million in federal coronavirus relief funds, but it took a long time for those funds to reach municipalities like Kansas City. Schools haven’t gotten anything yet.

County Legislative chair Theresa Galvin told KCUR she’s open to helping school districts with matching funds, but she’ll need to see the grant applications first.

Other counties are already distributing some of their funds to schools. Next week the Kansas City Council is expected to consider appropriating money from Clay County to the North Kansas City and Liberty school districts to help pay for PPE.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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