The Federal Emergency Management Agency is rejecting Tennessee’s request to fund protective equipment for schools. The policy decision means the state will have to use $186 million of other federal funding to cover the expense.
State officials say this is the first hiccup they’ve encountered with FEMA, which has been reimbursing the state for all kinds of pandemic-related costs, like free coronavirus testing in every county. And Gov. Bill Lee says he’s enlisted the state’s congressional delegation to help lobby FEMA.
He notes that the White House praised Tennessee’s decision to supply personal protective equipment for education. Every classroom received a kit with hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, gloves and masks meant to last a full year. In total, 27 million masks were ordered by the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency for schools to use.
— East Middle Panthers (@PanthersEMS) September 3, 2020
“We want to make sure we get reimbursement for those funds, at least the funds we’ve already expended,” Lee said in a financial stimulus oversight committee meeting last week.
FEMA announced the policy change in early September. The agency says its funding for protective gear and disinfection supplies is meant for true emergencies.
“Normal operation of schools and other public facilities are not emergency protective measures, so FEMA would not provide funding for these activities in these circumstances,” a FEMA spokesperson says in an email.
The agency also notes the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services plans to start sending out cloth masks for teachers and students, though it’s unclear when the plan to distribute 125 million masks would begin.
To pay for the protective gear, Tennessee is cutting into money from the Coronavirus Relief Fund that could otherwise go into a small business stimulus program or to replenish the state’s unemployment trust fund.