by Jessica Zhang, Staff Writer, March 2021
The pandemic has forced many schools to transfer to virtual learning or modify in-person schooldays to follow essential safety precautions. While some may think that hybrid schedules require schools to spend less money, the costs of operating are significantly higher than in previous years.
The most considerable COVID-related cost for Nobles is supplying students with free, weekly COVID tests. One test is $70, so the school spends about $60,000 per week to cover testing for the roughly 900 people who come onto campus. Although this price may seem excessive, a $70 test is still one of the cheaper options available – some Urgent Care centers are charging up to $150 per test. “We’re getting a discount because of the volume, but it’s still not that much cheaper,” Chief Financial and Operating Officer Steve Ginsberg said.
So if testing is so expensive, why has the school decided to give free, in-school tests? “We felt [that] testing is one of the critical pieces to safely staying open and preventing spread,” Ginsberg said. The school believes that making nearly 900 people find and pay for tests is logistically impossible and financially challenging for some families. Testing is a critical safety measure that the school uses to monitor campus safety.
The school determines its testing frequency by observing the COVID numbers in the surrounding area. “At the beginning of the year, we weren’t doing any testing. Then we started doing periodic testing. Our testing pattern has mirrored the community at large,” Ginsberg said. School finances have not altered testing frequency, unlike at many public schools and even some independent schools. “We’ve done testing at the cadence that we think is right by our medical advisory panel,” Ginsberg said. He added, “We have the good fortune as an institution, so far, to not have finances dictate not testing.”
Because the school has been providing weekly testing since early in the school year, the costs have accumulated. “Much of the budget was initially earmarked for testing, and we’ve overspent it,” Ginsberg said. Chief Advancement Officer George Maley estimates that the school will spend around $2.5 – 3 million dollars on COVID-19 procedures by the end of the school year. Much of this sum goes towards other safety precautions, such as renting tents for outdoor teaching, purchasing signage to help with wayfinding, providing hand sanitizer for each classroom, and paying new staff like instructional assistants. However, none of those costs compare to the cost of testing. “The testing is by far the most expensive. It’s going to end up being 75% of the COVID costs,” Ginsberg said.
To pay for pandemic safety measures, especially testing, the school has dipped into money saved from over the years in case of an emergency. “For many years, the school has been very safe and smart with our resources in the event that something unpredicted comes along. And this is about as tailor-made unpredicted as you can find,” Ginsberg said. Therefore, the school has not had to divert funds from areas where money is typically allocated. For example, teacher salaries, academic department budgets, and financial aid have not decreased to compensate for COVID-19 spending. “We have actually increased our financial aid budget for the 2021-2022 school year. We wanted to make sure that we supported all of the students, especially students whose families had financial circumstances that would have changed,” Maley said.
Donors are another critical resource the school is relying on to cover COVID-19 costs. “Dr. Hall and I have [had] a significant amount of meetings with board members, with our best supporters. Whenever we have asked them, a majority of them have said, ‘absolutely, I will support you guys with whatever you need,'” Maley said. The school hopes to do enough fundraising by the end of the school year to cover the total COVID-19 expenses. “It’s tracking to be a good fundraising year for the school as our donors have really responded to all the needs of the COVID costs,” Maley said.
Because of these high testing costs, the school is looking into cheaper options that don’t involve decreasing testing regularity, such as pool testing. In this method, the swabs from up to ten different people are combined and tested as one sample. If one of these combined samples tests positive, everyone whose swab was part of that sample is then individually tested. Due to Nobles’ low number of positive cases, the school is currently trying out pool testing with around 120 adults each week. Each pool test costs $35 instead of the usual $70 and can test up to ten times the amount of people. However, the slower turnaround time of pool testing may be more difficult with students. Still, the school continues to look into cost-saving measures that don’t compromise safety.
The costs of the pandemic have forced many schools to balance safety with financial limitations. However, the Nobles community is extremely fortunate to have safety precautions – like weekly testing – and other programs unaffected by finances. “The biggest part of the story is how incredibly thoughtful and generous our community has been to support all of these needs,” Maley said. Students should not take weekly testing for granted – start to look differently at the long testing lines they wait in each week.