As New York City public schools grapple with how to reopen this fall, local leaders are keeping a close eye on infection rates, and principals are puzzling through the logistics. But there’s another question keeping officials up at night: Whether schools can afford to open safely. 

At a virtual town hall for parents on Tuesday, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said the financial situation was dire. 

“We are in a bad place with our budget,” he said. “We have a lot of difficult decisions to make. One thing we won’t skimp on is making sure the health and safety of our students, our staff, and families are first and foremost.” 

Carranza, along with Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, have called on Congress to deliver emergency funding in another federal stimulus package. As it stands, both stimulus proposals from the Democrat-led House and the Republican-led Senate include additional funding for K-12 education. The Senate bill does not include funding for states and localities; the House bill does. 

Cuomo wrote a letter to the New York congressional delegation this week that said unless Congress allocated funding for states he would have to cut all local budgets, including schools, by 20% this year. 

A 20% cut to the New York City Department of Education would amount to $2.3 billion of its total $34 billion operating budget. During the crisis, the state got stimulus money but kept education funding for the city flat. A New York City education official said that created a $400 million shortfall, which the city had to cover using its own funds.

Some parents and educators said they weren’t sure how the school system could pull it off. 

“There are just too many variables that require a lot of money that we don’t have,” said Naomi Pena, president of the District 1 community education council on the Lower East Side. 

Reopening the city’s public school system during the Covid-19 pandemic will be a massive and expensive undertaking no matter what. For in-person instruction there would have to be thermometers for taking temperatures often. Teachers and students need masks. Nurses need gowns (and more nurses, for that matter). Custodians need soap, which has been in short supply in many schools in the past, and lots of disinfectant. They may also need more hours and staff. Windows and HVAC systems need to be repaired to ensure air is circulating. 

Carranza said the school system was preparing: upgrades to facilities were underway and shipments of cleaning supplies and protective equipment were ordered. The Department of Education is looking to tap into some FEMA funds to help pay for some of the personal protective equipment, he said.

But it’s likely that schools will need more teachers for remote and in-person instruction, and that is where experts say costs could really spike. 

When students are in school, they are supposed to be in smaller groups so they can be spaced apart; the exact number will depend on classroom size. So in classes that would normally include more than 30 students, even if a third of teachers and students are fully remote on a given day, that could still mean doubling the teaching staff at school. It all depends on how many students opt to go remote full time, and how many teachers get medical accommodations. 

The Department of Education asked families who want students to learn exclusively from home to register online by August 7th. Principals will be drawing on the results to devise their school-specific plans by August 14th. In the meantime, Carranza said the department was looking to employ more substitutes, and would ask supervisory staff with teaching certifications to step up. 

City budget watchdogs said it’s hard to calculate a cost estimate for reopening the schools because there is still so much uncertainty around staffing. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Education declined to offer a total price tag for reopening, saying it was negotiating with vendors. But agency officials said the system had faced crises before, including decimated revenue from the Great Recession and dislocation during Hurricane Sandy, and figured out ways to address them. 

Still, Pena said, past experience doesn’t make her optimistic. She said the HVAC system in her kids’s school hasn’t worked for years, and she doesn’t think it will be fixed by September. 

“Unless there are a million trees in the city that produce paper dollars I don’t see where this money is going to come from,” she said.