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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Most American kids have returned to some form of in-person school by now — but low-income school districts are paying a higher price for it.

The big picture: Preparing for testing, infrastructure improvements and distancing has cost school districts tens of millions of dollars. And poorer districts have had to freeze hiring and cut entire programs to make it work.

  • "Whenever you have an event like the pandemic, poor communities always get hit first, they always get hit the hardest, and the impact always lasts the longest,” Arne Duncan, former education secretary under Barack Obama, told Axios.

What's happening: To reopen safely, education officials say, schools need to be able to pay for measures like COVID testing, masks, new ventilation systems and additional staff and space to reduce class sizes and keep students safely apart.

  • And while federal aid has helped, schools still have to make sacrifices and shoulder unexpected costs. It's often worse in smaller, more rural districts, and in long underfunded urban districts.

"It’s been a combination of belt tightening and hard decisions,” says Christopher Doherty, the chief financial officer of Baltimore City Public Schools. “I don’t see how any districts can find the money without finding other costs to cut."

Details: In Goreville, Illinois, restrictions on the number of kids on buses became a big problem because rural school bus routes are so long and adding more buses was too expensive.

  • Thankfully, enough parents volunteered to drive kids to school so bus routes could stay the same, superintendent Steve Webb tells Axios.
  • Winchendon, Massachusetts cut eight instructors who taught elective courses to make room in its budget for COVID safety measures, like storing excess furniture to allow for social distancing and updating air conditioning systems, USA Today's Suzanne Hirt writes.
  • Baltimore has frozen hiring and spending since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Concerns about equity are very real,” says Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a coalition of state and local education leaders.

  • In urban — and often disadvantaged — school districts across the U.S., the effects of chronic underfunding are potentially making the costs of reopening higher, he says.
  • “The people who have been able to get kids back more easily are private schools or charter schools," giving an advantage to wealthy families. says Margaret Spellings, former education secretary under George W. Bush.
  • And many schools are using a hybrid of remote and in-person learning, which can exacerbate inequality because remote instruction has proven inferior to in-person instruction.

What to watch: There's a lot of money on the way. President Biden's coronavirus relief package includes nearly $130 billion to help schools reopen, on top of the $13.2 billion in the original CARES Act and $54.3 billion in December's COVID relief bill.

  • School districts are supposed to use 20% of the money in the new bill to address learning loss, through measures like summer learning, longer school days and extended school years.
  • Districts will receive money according to their Title I share, so funds are weighted towards districts with large numbers of low-income students. The bill also sets aside $30 billion to address learning loss among students disproportionately hurt by the pandemic, such as kids of color and English learners, a senior Biden administration official tells Axios.

But, but, but: Some damage has already been done. The last year of interrupted and remote school could cost the U.S. economy up to $28 trillion because of all the learning loss American kids have experienced.

  • This experience will affect kids for years to come, Spellings said. Duncan said a national tutoring initiative may be needed to help them catch up.
  • "It’s not just the academic loss — it’s the social/emotional impact. None of us have ever lived through anything like this,” said Duncan. "Of course the most vulnerable kids — the ones who were already behind — will now be even farther behind.”

The bottom line: “I think the main takeaway is, it’s all over the place," Spellings tells Axios. "There is no best practice; there is no research; everyone is making it up as they go."

Go deeper

3 hours ago - Health

FDA advisory panel recommends Pfizer boosters for those 65 and older

A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Key Biscayne Community Center on Aug. 24, 2021. Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A key Food and Drug Administration advisory panel on Friday overwhelmingly voted against recommending Pfizer vaccine booster shots for younger Americans, but unanimously recommended approving the third shots for individuals 65 and older, as well as those at high-risk of severe COVID-19.

Why it matters: While the votes are non-binding, and the FDA must still make a final decision, Friday's move pours cold water on the Biden administration's plan to begin administering boosters to most individuals who received the Pfizer vaccine later this month.

3 hours ago - World

France recalls ambassadors from U.S. and Australia over submarine deal

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L), French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (C), and French ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Etienne. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

France has taken the extraordinary step of recalling its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia after both countries blindsided their French allies with a new military pact and submarine contract, the French Foreign Ministry announced on Friday.

The backstory: While sealing an agreement with the U.S. and U.K. to acquire nuclear submarines, Australia ripped up an existing $90 billion submarine deal with France. That led senior French officials to accuse the U.S. of a "stab in the back."

Updated 3 hours ago - World

In reversal, Pentagon now says drone strike killed 10 Afghan civilians

Caskets for the dead are carried towards the gravesite as relatives and friends attend a mass funeral for members of a family that is said to have been killed in a U.S. drone airstrike, in Kabul on Aug. 30. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A U.S. drone strike launched on Aug. 29 killed 10 civilians in Afghanistan, including seven children, rather than the Islamic State extremists the Biden administration claimed it targeted, the Pentagon said Friday.

Why it matters: U.S. Central Command said at the time that officials "know" the drone strike "disrupted an imminent ISIS-K threat" to Kabul's airport, and that they were "confident we successfully hit the target."