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Are All-Remote Districts Really Saving That Much Money This Fall?

With so many thousands of districts doing all-remote learning this fall, there was an assumption by policymakers that they'd save millions of dollars. But how much are they really saving after all? 

Ultimately, it depends on a variety of factors, including the district's leadership, financial stability, readiness for remote learning and expected state budget cuts. 

While lots of districts in recent weeks have gone about shedding hundreds of bus drivers, teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians, and secretaries from their payrolls, other districts have decided not to layoff. 

Layoffs are politically risky for superintendents and there's the slight possibility that the coronavirus infection rate will fall or, alternatively, a vaccine will be ready sooner than administrators expect and districts will have to scramble and open school buildings back up. In that scenario, they'll need enough bodies on staff to make that happen.

It's important to remember remote learning is not easy, nor is it cheap. 

Here are five unexpected costs for districts without in-person learning:

Professional development: Public schools are not used to teaching students online. They've had to hire consultants and pay overtime to in-house experts to train teachers how to engage and discipline students online, write effective lesson plans, and use all the new equipment. Districts got a lot of backlash in the spring for rolling out shoddy remote learning, and many superintendents are trying their hardest to avoid the same mistakes. 

Gadgets: Remote learning requires lots and lots of equipment, including iPads for thousands of students and teachers, cameras, microphones, Wi-Fi routers and, for rural districts, satellites to provide internet for especially remote students. Over the summer, iPads went missing or were damaged. And districts have had to hire on extra IT staff to help manage the overload of help requests. 

Software: Over the summer, districts purchased all sorts of software to enhance students' lessons, maintain students' privacy, and allow teachers to communicate with one another and their students. While this software isn't necessarily expensive on its own, purchasing lots of it for sizeable staff and student body can add up. 

Printing and Paper: Districts are obligated under state constitutions to provide enrolled students with teaching and learning. Districts with large groups of students without Wi-Fi or devices have to print out lesson plans and homework assignments. This is forcing districts to buy up reams of paper and print thousands of novel-sized packets.

Postage Stamps: For thousands of widely scattered employees and students, districts have had to deliver gadgets, textbooks, and office supplies at the beginning of this school year. This can cost up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for some districts.

All that can add up. No matter which way you spin it, however, remote learning is significantly cheaper than a hybrid or in-person model—protecting from the coronavirus requires districts to hire more adults to avoid student crowding and plenty of Personal Protective Equipment, among other unprecedented costs.

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