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States Worry FEMA Won't Cover Costs of COVID-19 Gear for Educators, Schools

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency must continue reimbursements for personal protective equipment and disinfectants used in public settings, including public schools, as the nation responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Governors Association said this week

State and local officials have been informed that the federal agency will change how it applies a federal emergency declaration, leaving them on the hook for the costs of things like masks, gloves, and cleaning supplies used by schools and other public organizations, the NGA said in a letter with a group of other organizations Tuesday.

"PPE is a fundamental need for all COVID-19 related operations and is the definition of an 'emergency protective measure,'" that letter said. "Shifting policy guidance in the middle of a pandemic is impractical, causes confusion, and disrupts operations in states and localities."

A FEMA spokesperson told Education Week that personal protective equipment continues to be an "essential" part of the agency's support for state and local governments during the pandemic. In an email statement, the agency did not answer whether schools qualified for reimbursement under the its guidance.

"FEMA regularly reviews program policies and guidance to ensure that state, local, tribal and territorial partners have the best guidance available and to ensure the appropriate use of federal funding," the statement said. "If and when FEMA issues updated policies we will ensure we communicate that clearly to all our partners and stakeholders."

But some states are already reporting concerns, the National Governors Association said.

Federal officials have told states that FEMA plans to update its guidance to say that it will reimburse for costs related to "initial response" to the pandemic and not to "reopening," which is an "arbirtrary distinction," the organization's letter says. 

"These communications have come from FEMA regional representatives in calls with state and local officials, including a call with our associations," said NGA spokesperson James Nash, who added that the organizations were told that guidance will not be retroactive but will be applied to reimbursements going forward. "We don't have anything in writing from FEMA."

A different FEMA spokesperson told Florida news station WFTS that, to date, 184 U.S. school districts have submitted requests for reimbursements through the program and "only three have been granted." The rest are "in development or under review," the station reported.

"Normal operation of schools and other public facilities are not considered emergency protective measures," that FEMA spokesperson told WFTS, so they don't qualify for the emergency reimbursements.

That's despite federal guidance from organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that calls for students and school staff to wear masks and disinfect surfaces frequently. School administrators have cited those costs as major concerns as the Trump administration has pushed them to reopen school buildings rather than starting the 2020-21 school year with remote learning as COVID-19 rates continue to climb in some areas.

For months, several Florida state agencies told schools to plan for the federal reimbursements, WFTS reported. And a skim of state websites show several others have given similar guidance to their districts.

The National Governors Association signed onto the letter to FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor alongside the International City/County Management Association, the National Association of Counties, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Emergency Management Association, the National League of Cities, The Council of State Governments, and The United States Conference of Mayors.

The organizations have pushed for more assistance to help state and local governments make up for lost revenue in the next federal COVID-19 relief bill. But Congress and the White House are at odds over what to include in that aid package.

In the absence of an agreement, President Donald Trump signed an executive order this month that, among other things, will allow some federal disaster money to be used to supplement state unemployment insurance payouts.

The letter from NGA and other groups questions whether that move strained the federal disaster fund, leaving FEMA to "shift the cost" of things like PPE back to states.

"We call on FEMA to keep its current guidance on emergency protective measures, and encourage the Administration to provide clear guidance on eligibility of funding streams from across the federal government," the letter says.

Photo: Sidewalk chalk art reminds students are to wear a mask as they arrive for the first day of school at Union High School in Tulsa, Okla., Monday. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP)


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