Local School Districts Suddenly Have Unprecedented Cash | Voice of San Diego

Education

Local School Districts Suddenly Have Unprecedented Cash

San Diego Unified alone will receive around $609 million in state and federal aid between March 2020 and fall 2021, and may get to keep another $34 million if it reopens in the coming weeks.

Classrooms at Lafayette Elementary School include sanitizing stations to prevent the spread of coronavirus. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Between the various state and federal coronavirus aid packages approved over the last year, local school districts are flush with such large infusions of cash that many haven’t even contemplated how to spend previous rounds, let alone new ones.

San Diego Unified alone will receive around $609 million in state and federal aid between March 2020 and fall 2021, and may get to keep another $34 million if it reopens in the coming weeks.

State legislators, for their part, want to see the latest round of state funding come with more school reopenings.

Public records and interviews reveal local public school districts are still working to spend the $400.5 million in CARES Act aid money sent their way earlier in 2020, and are still weighing what to do with the nearly $349.5 million slice of the $900 billion federal relief package passed in December.

Now, they are about to get another major windfall of coronavirus aid from federal and state legislators who approved new relief packages in March.

Estimates from EdSource show the latest $1.9 trillion congressional aid package is expected to send $777 million to the county’s 42 public K-12 school districts. The two largest checks – nearly $285 million and $77 million, respectively – will head to the San Diego Unified School District and the Sweetwater Union High School District.

Campuses for both districts remain mostly empty a year after the pandemic began and the same can be said about most of the rest of the region’s public schools. According to a County Office of Education reopening portal, 74 percent of the nearly 400,000 students in San Diego County’s public school districts are still learning from afar only.

In San Diego Unified, less than 8 percent of their 96,730 students are getting some kind of hybrid learning, where students spend a portion of time on campus, while Sweetwater is educating only 2 percent of its 35,833 students in a hybrid setting, according to the county portal.

Districts like them have new financial reasons to get moving and accelerate their reopening plans, thanks to the new state relief package approved this month that included $4.56 billion for extra student learning loss supports, plus $2 billion in reopening incentives.

Adding accountability strings with firm reopening timelines to some of the new money was “huge. Everything,” said state Assemblyman Phil Ting of San Francisco, who chairs the Assembly budget committee. “It wasn’t enough to say, ‘Here’s the money and give it your best shot.’ That was not going to be good enough.”

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Ting emerged earlier this year as a vocal critic of schools that have remained closed for in-person instruction after seeing his two children relegated to online learning with fewer instructional hours for the duration of the pandemic.

“I am normally a huge proponent of local control, but this year, local control has been a complete failure. We have seen the whole ‘trust us’ motto from the districts fail. It’s failed our students. It’s failed our families. It’s failed our teachers. It’s failed our staff. … We have seen significant harm done,” Ting said at a Feb. 22 legislative hearing. “We sent $5 billion with no accountability, and we are not going to make that mistake again this year.”

To get a portion of the new $2 billion incentive from the state, California school districts by April 1 must offer some kind of in-person instruction to kindergarten through second grade students, plus students identified in certain vulnerable groups across all grades while their county is in the state’s most restrictive purple tier, as dictated by various coronavirus health metrics. If the county is in the lesser red tier – which San Diego County entered this week – in-person instruction must expand to include all elementary students, plus at least one secondary grade. Districts can provide hybrid learning, with alternating student cohorts on different days or hours of the week and still receive the grants.

The hope is now the perfect storm – more money, fewer infections and more vaccines – will finally swing more physical school doors open. County officials said during a K-12 telebriefing Tuesday 22,000 vaccine doses had gone to K-12 education workers through last weekend, out of 90,000 invitations.

Ting said he has reason for hope.

“We saw our legislation, our appropriation, our setting aside these resources and doing it in a way that prioritizes safety has really catalyzed a number of districts to start to open up all across the state,” he said. “We needed something that was aspirational, but also achievable… The whole point was to get districts that weren’t open to reopen.”

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For San Diego Unified, the state’s new funding package will provide nearly $77.6 million for learning loss and offer another $33.6 million in reopening incentive grants, according to estimates shared by School Services of California Inc., a widely used education consulting firm. Records show the district received nearly $114 million in the initial 2020 aid funding rounds mostly from the CARES Act, plus another $132.6 million in the December federal relief package, according to a recent district presentation.

District officials did not immediately answer questions about how they plan to spend the new money.

For Sweetwater, the district will get another $27.3 million from the state for learning loss and is eligible for $12.75 million in reopening incentives. The district received nearly $41 million in the initial 2020 aid funding rounds – and has defended spending millions of those dollars on existing employees’ pay amid the closures. The December federal relief package provided Sweetwater another $34 million, district officials said.

In the Sweetwater district, talks with the teachers’ union to provide a one-time 7 percent pay increase for the month of April and a one-time 2 percent increase in May for teachers who return to in-person instruction April 12, plus no-cost childcare for the rest of the school year, are underway, according to a bargaining update circulated by the union this month. The update says the district may prioritize high school seniors for the return and groups of vulnerable students.

In the San Diego Unified School District, no such payments are included in an April 12 hybrid reopening deal recently reached with the teacher’s union.

Per that agreement, how much time students spend on campus will vary school to school depending on how many students return to campuses rather than stay in distance learning, as well as the space limitations in different classrooms due to a requirement students remain at least five feet apart, per the safety portion of the two-part deal. The instructional side of the deal aims for a six-hour school day for students, with teachers educating students in-person and online simultaneously a portion of the day. It also contemplates some schools only being able to have students on campus two days a week.

The San Diego Unified agreement also bars layoff notices for teachers this school year, ensuring employment is retained next year.

Even if districts struggle to figure out a plan to bring students back in the coming weeks and get their labor unions on board, a return to campuses is inevitable and may be closer than some think.

Ting said the state’s waiver to allow school districts to provide wholesale distance learning will expire June 30.

Asked whether he wanted to see it expire, Ting replied, “I would be happy to see kids back in school.”

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