Who remembers Richard Pryor in the movie ‘Brewster’s Millions’ where he had to spend $30 million dollars in one month to receive a $300 million windfall? That’s sort of the position the Delaware County Council is in.

Delaware County Council was awarded $98 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act , which must be spent by Dec. 31, or the remainder must be returned to the federal government. They decided to break off $20 million to the Delaware County Intermediate Unit to dispense to the county’s Title 1 schools to provide Internet connections and related equipment to qualifying low-income families, sanitizing equipment and supplies, and PPE.

County Councilwoman Christine Reuther said. “I just want to make sure that our expectations are upfront so they know that when they take the money they’re taking the obligation to report as well.”

I’m not sure if that statement is in reference to the DCIU or the schools who will ultimately receive the money, but the issue brought up from a handful of citizens who signed a letter to County Council is how unusual this transfer of money appears to be without a concrete plan for the money’s use.

Since the DCIU is getting a nice cut from the $20 million, I’ll assume it’s their responsibility to not only dispense the money to the eligible schools, but to also report back to County Council how the schools used the money. 

This money not only has to be dispensed by the end of the year, it has to be spent or else any change must be sent back to Washington. 

When I consider the needs of Chester-Upland Schools who will surely get some of this money, I’d expect the biggest need is getting all students Wifi, Chromebooks, and to purchase a lot of reams of paper and printer toner cartridges for the study packets sent home to students who don’t have Wifi and Chromebooks. There’s also the ongoing  HVAC issues in the schools. I’m not sure if HVAC issue are to improve air circulation or to just make sure there’s heat in the buildings for the winter – hopefully both could qualify for spending the CARES Act money.

If there’s any money left, I figure it would be used on personal protective equipment like masks, cleaning supplies, and hand sanitizer. Maybe Chester can keep UnitedHeathcare around to continue to do free COVID-19 testing in the schools if they reopen in January. 

The need to spend $20 million in under 4-months is a good problem to have. County Council agreeing to release the money without a firm agreement how the money is going to be spent requires a lot of trust that the DCIU and the schools will not only do the right thing with the money but keep all their receipts when it’s time to account for their spending. 

Like Richard Pryor in ‘Brewster’s Millions,’ there’s a good chance keeping up with the spending of all that money may prove to be a bigger challenge than expected. 

If only we could dedicate $20 million to finding creative ways to educate underserved students as opposed to being forced to spend $20 million dollars in a way to satisfy the pandemic profiteers using education as their guise. 

Here’s the open letter to Delaware County Council signed by county households that said the $20 million allocation is well-intentioned but doesn’t go far enough…

September 2, 2020

An open letter to Delaware County Council regarding agenda item 19, related to the proposed distribution of $20 million in County CARES Act funds through the DCIU:

The virtual school year has only just begun and it’s already clear that not having kids back in school in person is overburdening families and leaving kids behind. The adverse mental health consequences of keeping kids out of school for an unprecedented 6+ months have already overwhelmed child psychologists with patients. This unsustainable situation will only get worse until kids get back to school. Keeping 23 million kids out of school whose parents have to go to work will trigger a public health crisis that will outlast the pandemic by exacerbating educational inequality unlike anything we have ever seen.

It is incumbent on all of our civic leaders, from our federal government, to Delco County Council, to local school boards, to lead the way out of this crisis. As Maria Panaritis puts it in today’s Inquirer:

That I even have to write this column is an American failure. That our leaders have treated this months-long calamity as invisible and, therefore, unworthy of resources is appalling.

My message to local, county, state, and federal officials, as well as to businesses that do little to take a lead on this issue, is this: One of the most fundamental components of the American Dream is rotting on YOUR watch.

Council’s proposed $20 million CARES Act funding directed to the Delaware County Intermediate Unit (DCIU) is well-intentioned in its support of under-resourced public schools in our county. But it doesn’t go far enough, and Council’s discussion of the proposal at yesterday’s agenda meeting revealed its shotgun and inchoate nature. The proposal on the table is unnecessarily vague, not fully formed, and insufficient to address the immediate challenges Delco’s school districts face in getting their kids and teachers safely back into the classroom.

The fact that the bulk of the funds are devoted to buying technology and broadband services for students who lack internet access begs the question of how their school boards could have voted to start the year virtually, when they knew they had a digital divide issue that would prevent kids from participating. Many school districts started the year yesterday. One wonders how many kids missed their first day of school because they had either no supervision, no internet access, or both.

The City of Philadelphia foresaw this problem months ago and, in partnership with Comcast and local philanthropic organizations, launched a program called PHL ConnectED. It is now fully up and running, complete with a hotline to get families set up with technology and broadband access – immediately and at no cost – so their kids can begin the school year online. Before Council allocates $20 million to the DCIU to support virtual learning with little intended direction, it should consult with the City of Philadelphia to help fund the expansion of the PHL ConnectED program, which already exists and serves the same purpose.

But Council can and should do more than that, and time is short. Delaware County received $98 million in CARES Act funding, which according to the Executive Director must be distributed by the end of the year or else returned to the federal government. That timeline appears to be driving the decision to pump out $20 million to the DCIU before an agreement exists that will govern the use and distribution of the funds. Councilman Madden noted yesterday, and the Executive Director agreed with his characterization, that this proposal “is more supply driven than demand driven.”

Even if the digital divide can be bridged, solving that problem will not address the tremendous inequality that exists between online learning and in-person learning. On behalf of parents concerned about the harmful follow-on effects caused by learning virtually on screens as opposed to in-person with their peers, we urge Council to think critically about not squandering the financial firepower it has been given. Just as the schools that need the most help bridging the digital divide are Title 1 schools, Title 1 schools will also have the most difficulty returning to in person learning. Why? Because compared to the wealthier school districts, they have greater unmet financial needs associated with the safe return to school: lack of ability to fund COVID testing for staff and students, classrooms that need better ventilation, PPE that will need to be procured and staff that will need to be hired to ensure kids can follow the rules that will enable students and teachers to return to school safely.

We urge Council to devote the County’s political influence and CARES Act capital towards supporting both the expansion of PHLConnectED to include Delaware County, as well as funding the safe return of teachers and students to the classroom, starting with elementary school students to take the burden off of parents of young students who need constant supervision. If the remaining $20+ million dollars out of the $98 million the County received under the CARES Act need to be deployed by year’s end, we ask that such funds be devoted to a comprehensive effort to not only bridge the digital divide and reimburse public schools for unbudgeted expenses, but to support the needs of teachers and students to return safely to the classroom. Failure to seize the opportunity to invest the County’s CARES Act funds in measures to reopen public education now will foreclose Council’s ability to do so in the future. The greater the delay in driving towards the goal of reopening schools, the further we place undue hardships on the most vulnerable members of our community.

Please exercise your leadership role to call for direct input from Delco’s parents and teachers regarding their specific needs to get students and staff safely back to school. This includes COVID-19 testing, PPE, safety monitoring, and HVAC improvements. If Council prioritizes safely reopening schools during its public hearings in September and October, the vital CARES Act funds entrusted to the County will be deployed with much greater impact, because they will be driven by demand instead of supply.

We hope you will do everything in your power to seize this opportunity and lead on this issue. For Delco’s parents and children, reopening schools safely will be the most consequential issue you will face during your remaining tenure on Council. 

This is your time to shine. We are counting on you.