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Texas got $2.4B to safely reopen schools. Some teachers ask where it went

McALLEN, Texas — Nancy Trevino, a fifth grade teacher here in southern Texas, began suffering debilitating migraines after contracting the coronavirus for a second time a few weeks ago. Still sickly five days after testing positive, Trevino says she was pressured to return to work without a negative test result. Then, this week, she says she developed hives, a skin condition she believes is a nervous response to stress. 

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“I told myself ‘OK, my body is telling me slow down, take a breather,’” Trevino said. “Yes, I love what I do. I love teaching, I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I have a master’s degree and I want to stay, but my body is telling me otherwise.” 

So Trevino, 32, quit her “dream” job at Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School and doesn’t know if she’ll ever return to teaching. 

Although she can’t be certain she contracted the virus on the job, Trevino says the school, until recently, wasn’t providing the necessary protective gear to staff, specifically high-quality N95 masks. While the McAllen Independent School District says it did provide a mix of three-ply and KN95 masks, the tensions illustrate an emerging national debate over how billions in taxpayer funds are being used.

While some districts provided N95 masks, many others spent funds that were meant to be used to safely reopen schools on other things, like student enrichment activities. The teachers’ union in Chicago, for instance, has also complained about lacking protective gear.

Further, Trevino’s district does not offer sick days because of Covid.

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The lack of available protective supplies persisted, she said, even after McAllen was given almost $50 million in federal funds as part of the first two Covid funding bills dedicated explicitly to helping children and teachers safely return to school through protective gear, facility improvements and mitigating learning loss. The bulk of the spending, roughly $37 million, was tagged for student learning and student needs, according to the district’s spending plan given to NBC.

About $475,588 went toward personal protective equipment for staff and students, sanitation materials and “related supplies necessary to maintain school operations during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Stories like Trevino’s are emerging from Texas, where teachers and educators say billions in U.S. taxpayer funds allocated to make schools safe during Covid are not being used to prioritize safety. As parents, teachers and taxpayers look at how the billions in federal funds were spent, there are likely to be plenty of grievances without a clear path to resolution. Congress attached few conditions to the funds.

In total, Texas, where Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has tried to bar schools from requiring masks, was given $2.4 billion in the first two federal emergency Covid relief installments “intended to help states and school districts safely reopen schools, measure and effectively address significant learning loss and take other actions to mitigate the impact of COVID-19,” according to the U.S. Dept. of Education.

Voices featured in a new survey by the Texas American Federation of Teachers include a special education teacher who spent $100 of her own money to buy N95 masks to keep herself safe at work, as well as bus drivers and nurses who were not given protective equipment during the January Covid surge.

“They’re asking to be provided with N95 masks and rapid tests, to be able to take leave when they’re sick,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “This is basic stuff,” he said, and “it was taxpayer money they received for the purposes of mitigating these Covid issues.”

Mark May, a spokesman for the McAllen ISD, said in a statement that the district “cares deeply about the health and safety of staff and students” and has “steadfastly followed appropriate health protocols in a multi-tiered approach.”

The school district ordered more than 6,000 KN95 masks after the CDC updated its guidance on masks in January to include the use of N95 and KN95 masks for the general public, May said. The union said it had been requesting such masks since last August.

“All schools now have them, and they are available for any of our 3,300 employees,” May said. He said the school district has never experienced a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Any staff member seeking PPE should obtain one at their school. This helps ensure PPE will be available for those who are in need.”

The union is compiling a list of districts that failed to supply protective gear as up to half of educators in some schools were out sick or in quarantine due to Covid in January, said Sylvia Tanguma, president of the federation’s McAllen chapter. 

The most “egregious” examples are likely to lead to formal complaints with school boards, Tanguma said. As Covid ripped through the McAllen district, the school board also rebuffed teachers asking for dedicated paid time off if they missed work due to Covid sickness or quarantines, said Tanguma. While the federal government required school districts to provide Covid-specific time off in 2020, that is now a district-level decision. McAllen School District also said the board is expected to take action on paid time off on Feb. 14

“It makes everyone feel disrespected and uncared for. Like our lives don’t matter,” Tanguma told NBC. “All we have are three-ply masks, cloth masks and that’s it. Why don’t our nurses, bus drivers and custodial workers have N-95 masks?”

NBC reached out to additional staff, including food service workers and bus drivers in the McAllen area whom the union said struggled to obtain protective gear during the omicron surge; they declined to speak on the record. 

While low pay and a general “lack of respect” weighed into Trevino’s decision to leave teaching, so did the school district’s failure to protect her, she said. 

“One of the things that saddens me the most is the way that money is distributed in my school district,” Trevino said.

The McAllen district, where 72 percent of children qualify for free lunch, is also spending $12 million for a “Mariachi Center,” performance theater “black boxes,” $4 million to expand a nature park and $2 million on an art and science museum. They are budgeted as part of Covid emergency funds given to schools in 2020. 

May, the McAllen ISD spokesman, said the funds the district received “have been spent or earmarked appropriately with the focus on students and staff.” 

But Bree Dusseault, principal at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, an Arizona State University research center that studies learning during the pandemic, said the situation in McAllen highlights an emerging issue two years into the pandemic. While McAllen gave NBC a detailed plan of its spending, in many cases, there is little transparency around how school districts are spending millions in federal funds intended to help schools reopen safely, Dusseault, who is tracking the spending and how Covid is affecting student learning, said.

Since the first two rounds of funding, school districts have received an even larger pot of federal funds under the American Rescue Plan, a historic investment signed into law by President Joe Biden intended to address steep learning loss and innovate the nation’s aging public schools, which have been chronically underfunded for decades. In total, schools have been given $189.5 billion over two years of the pandemic by Congress and the White House.

“This is a huge federal infusion of dollars, and it’s really difficult in many states and districts to even see their plans for how they spend it,” said Dusseault. Little more than half the districts she examined had a process to obtain detailed expenditures, she said. 

“Districts are really being tested. Will the federal government ever want to give them this money again? It depends on how they spend it,” said Dusseault. ​​Congress required districts to submit spending plans, which were approved by individual states.

Capo said the “health crisis” in schools is contributing to a “staffing crisis.” The new poll of Texas educators finds low wages, workload stress and now concerns about health and safety are driving a potentially devastating exodus from the profession.

According to the Texas AFT survey released Monday, 66 percent of educators throughout Texas said they have recently considered leaving their jobs. Just 12 percent said they felt safe on the job during the omicron surge.

Shana Pawlowski, a fifth grade math teacher in New Caney ISD outside Houston, is one the teachers who said they felt unsafe in the classroom in the video created by the Texas AFT. Their concerns extend beyond the spending of federal Covid dollars.

“It’s an almost complete abandonment of the safety issues and those things that were put in place to make teachers and students feel safe,” Pawlowski said. “A lot of teachers, myself included, just don’t feel safe.”

Nicolette Balogh, an elementary teacher featured in the union video, says she, too, is quitting because of “health and safety concerns.”

As she made her way out of the school after quitting, Trevino said she stopped to say goodbye to colleagues. “A lot of them hugged me and they said, ‘Nancy, I’m so happy for you. I wish I could leave. ‘”

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