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Schools are scrambling for tents. But public ones aren’t so sure they can afford the cover. | Maria Panaritis

Tents - a coronavirus remedy for crowded schools - has a lot of interest. But a Norristown, Pa., tent supplier says only private schools have so far snapped up the pricey inventory.

Owner Anthony Cianciculli stands in a warehouse filled with tents at Anthony Party Rentals in Norristown, Pa. on Monday, July 13, 2020.
Owner Anthony Cianciculli stands in a warehouse filled with tents at Anthony Party Rentals in Norristown, Pa. on Monday, July 13, 2020.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

The Broad Street Run no longer needed his services. Neither did brides, grooms, and universities stranded at the altar by a pandemic for which there remains no vaccine. But the phone is now ringing off the hook at Anthony Cianciulli’s battered tent-rental business. On the line is a desperate potential client.

School districts, private K-12 schools, and even some college and universities.

Scrambling to expand their real estate sufficiently to create socially distanced classrooms ahead of openings that are only weeks away, districts and other large educational institutions are exploring the use of tents. It’s a commonsense idea for adapting to the fact that life indoors as we knew it has now become, amid COVID-19, very much a public health hazard.

If only they were getting the support from our government that could actually help them make this happen.

The public and private schools calling Anthony Party Rentals in recent weeks are asking what it would cost to rent one or more tents through November. Only the private ones, so far, have “pulled the trigger,” as Cianciulli put it. That very likely has to do with deep pockets and flexibility that our battered public schools do not have.

Despite months to prepare for the return to school during a pandemic that has devastated most everyone but white-collar employees and stock investors, there has been virtually no meaningful federal pandemic aid to schools districts. Not from our viciously apathetic White House or from its partner in annihilation of the middle class, the Republican-controlled Senate.

There have been only bloviating directives and destruction through passivity.

“We’re getting tons of phone calls,” Cianciulli said when I called and found him at his desk this week at Anthony Party Rentals. “From colleges, universities, high schools, private schools — everyone’s calling us.”

Only a few have locked any in by lodging deposits on them, he said.

None of the schools moving forward so far is a public one. Cianciulli’s confirmed jobs include an elite Main Line K-12 school that is private, and several colleges and universities, he said.

Our federal government should be doing everything in its power to help public schools secure and finance solutions such as this. Instead, our nation’s leaders are popping popcorn while schools devolve into a whoever-can-afford-it Thunderdome match for surviving the pandemic.

Cianciulli says reserving tents comes with risk for both parties.

He is requiring nonrefundable deposits for tents that could cost anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 each to rent for several months. He has no choice, he says, after being forced, earlier this year, to fully refund deposits for clients as the pandemic prompted government-ordered shutdowns of business and large gatherings.

His company in Norristown is at half staffing. Most of his tents are out of service. Even some of his trucks are off insurance — that’s how tight things have gotten.

Instead of making a typical $1 million in May, he watched a meager $56,000 roll in by June.

Normally, “there are weeks in June,” he said, “when every single tent is rented out.”

Business ticked up after Gov. Tom Wolf approved outdoor dining. Anthony Party Rentals installed tents at restaurants. He also put one up “outside a refrigerator box outside of one of the hospitals,” he said.

Then came a flurry of school calls.

“They’re asking for classrooms outside,” he said of K-12 schools. Or overflow areas for cafeterias. Or long covered walkways that students can stand under while waiting their turn, through social distancing, to enter cafeterias.

» READ MORE: Schools can’t reopen safely without better COVID testing for kids, say these Philly pediatricians l Expert Opinion

Some schools also are asking for floors in tents. Others want walls, only to then realize that walls are part of the problem that everyone is trying to avoid.

Not one public school, though, has booked them after getting quotes.

“We still don’t know what they’re doing,” he said.

The Trump White House and Mitch McConnell’s Republican-led Senate, whose generous-to-bailing-out-businesses caucus includes influential Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, have refused to act on authorizing pandemic rescue funds to schools. Philadelphia says it will need $60 million to $80 million more just to open in a vastly scaled-down fashion this fall.

» READ MORE: Philly’s coronavirus back-to-school plan: no full reopening, most students in class 2 days, will cost $60-$80 million more

Our federal government bailed out private equity-owned businesses but has refused to throw a lifeline to the public institutions of greatest value in our nation: public schools.

In Pennsylvania alone, school districts educate 1.7 million children.

When public schools shut down this past spring, students were left with little to no education for months.

It’s one reason why finding a way to reopen safely is so critical. In-person instruction requires more space than most districts possess. Tents could be an emergency solution to help with social distancing. If only our cash-strapped districts had enough money sloshing around to make it happen.

Imagine what the school district business would do to help a small business like Cianciulli’s at a time when our economy is in tatters.

“Look at them all,” Cianciulli said as we walked past aisle after aisle of stacked, unused tents in a warehouse on Main Street. “They’re all rotting away.”

Yes. Rotting away like our schools, sooner than later, in the hands of the majority party in Washington during a crisis of unprecedented danger and damage.