No COVID-Related Reimbursements From Govt. For Diocesan Schools
WINDSOR TERRACE — The cost of every container of cleaning wipes, every pump bottle of hand sanitizer, and every technology upgrade continues to add up for schools across the Diocese of Brooklyn.
This comes after many educators learned over the summer that reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would not be delivered to mailboxes ahead of the new school year, which for diocesan schools began Sept. 8.
“Unlike the [New York City] DOE [Department of Education, which has more funding], all that costs a lot of money,” Dr. Cristina Tancredi-Cruz, principal of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Academy in Corona, told Currents News. “Money that we didn’t have.”
Cruz said it cost more than $3,000 a day to keep her school physically open during the 2020-21 academic year. She also saw an increase in student enrollment last year, when public school families decided to register at Our Lady of Sorrows after the city’s public schools delayed their reopenings for in-person learning.
“It’s extremely frustrating because we really care,” Cruz added.
Last year, COVID-19 testing across the diocese was conducted through SOMOS Community Care, and all 69 diocesan schools applied for FEMA funds to pay for the testing, to be permitted to stay open. However, they are still waiting to learn from FEMA if they are eligible for relief through FEMA’s Public Assistance Program for pandemic-related school costs — funding that public schools received.
For example, under that program, school districts can be reimbursed for the cost of cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) that were purchased in 2020 and continued to be used after Jan. 21, 2021 (i.e. masks, desk shields, and other PPE). Also eligible to be reimbursed would be the cost of cleaning supplies and PPE purchased after Jan. 21, as well as COVID-19 testing and screening.
FEMA has said it will be another six months to a year before reimbursement funds would be evaluated and become available.
“It was disheartening, but we did push the city a number of times to reimburse us or to work with us,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas Chadzutko. “But, sadly, that fell on deaf ears.”
Tracy Flanagan, principal of St. Bernard Catholic Academy in Bergen Beach, said she could relate to Cruz’s situation.
Flanagan kept a meticulous record of expenses last year and found that she had spent nearly $44,000 between August and October 2020 for operating costs under a hybrid learning model. Those costs, for example, went toward building classrooms in the school’s gymnasium, upgrading the gym’s ventilation system, purchasing fogging machines and liquid formula, and upgrading bathroom equipment to become touch-free.
This year, St. Bernard’s is reopening for fully in-person learning. It has already spent at least $10,000, prior to the Sept. 8 opening day, for additional expenses such as restocked cleaning supplies.
“Let’s face it,” Flanagan said, “when they [FEMA] do have funds available, we’re not the first to get them.”
“Larger school districts are going to get them before we do,” she continued. “We don’t get a budget for that; that has to come out of our funds.”
Now, some schools are faced with making tough choices as the new academic year begins without reimbursement.
“We’ll have to figure it out, like we always do, whether it means cutting back in some area,” Tancredi-Cruz explained. “Most likely staffing, in order to be able to purchase the things that we have to — the bare necessities.”
St. Bernard’s will hold its first fund-raising Walk-a-Thon on Sept. 24, with a portion of the proceeds going to help offset the ongoing costs of PPE. They were just $1,000 shy of their $20,000 goal prior to Labor Day weekend.
“Last year, our local St. Bernard Knights of Columbus [Council #14269], and even businesses around here, donated a lot of PPE to us when stores were running low on supplies,” Flanagan said. “We continue to have wonderful families and a wonderful community that comes together.”