School safety grants to cover laptops, hand sanitizer in 2020

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    A grant program that has helped Pennsylvania schools finance security equipment and personnel for the last two years has officially been rebranded for the COVID-19 era, flush with an infusion of federal relief funds and new guidelines for how schools can spend them. 

    Gov. Tom Wolf announced Tuesday that schools across the commonwealth can begin to apply for a combined $150 million in School Health and Safety Grants, which can be used to purchase cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment; to provide mental health services and professional development to students and staff; and to retrofit school buildings to promote social distancing.

    Schools can also use the money to buy new technology that will help students with remote learning, according to guidelines that came out Tuesday. 

    The money, which comes from Pennsylvania’s federal CARES Act allocation, will be funneled through a grant program that was created in the aftermath of the 2018 Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla. Over the past two years, the fund has awarded more than $100 million in competitive grants to schools that want to make security enhancements. 

    Unlike past years, this year’s safety funds will not be distributed as competitive grants. Instead, all public schools in the commonwealth are eligible for a predetermined award amount that they can claim by submitting an application by June 30. 

    Funding guidelines approved as part of the state budget call for each of the commonwealth’s 500 school districts to receive a base payment of $120,000 from the school safety fund, plus an additional amount based on their total student enrollment. 

    The state’s 200-plus charter schools, intermediate units and technical schools are all eligible for $90,000 awards.

    Since federal law requires the CARES Act money to pay for COVID-19-related expenses, this will also be the first year since 2018 that schools can not use funds from the school safety program to buy metal detectors, security cameras and other violence-prevention devices, said Hannah Barrick, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

    The program did receive a small allocation of state funds in the interim, five-month budget that Wolf signed at the end of May. 

    But those funds will be earmarked for non-public schools responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and a portion will be set aside for community-based violence prevention programs, Barrick said.

    Nonetheless, the two-year old school security program program, which typically receives far more funding requests than it can match, provided a convenient vehicle to get schools fast cash during a tumultuous summer, Barrick said. It’s also due to receive another $50 million in CARES Act money that will flow out in another round of funding.

    “School districts will be challenged in a way they have not been challenged in the past, and that’s going to result in increased costs on all fronts,” Barrick said of safeguarding classrooms from COVID-19. “It made sense to [provide] funds through a familiar process.”

    The $150 million that will flow through the safety fund represents just a portion of the CARES cash that Pennsylvania schools will receive this year. The Pennsylvania Department of Education is also distributing more than $523 million in federal funds to help districts reopen schools – an event that can start as early as July 1 in some parts of the state. 

    Barrick said the federal funds are welcome, but likely won’t cover all the costs that schools expect to incur, especially since her organization expects that Pennsylvania schools will see a combined $1 billion loss in local revenue this year.