California schools can’t reopen safely without more federal dollars, state schools chief says

May 20, 2020

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond during a staff interview at EdSource.

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California schools will not be able to reopen safely next school year unless they receive additional federal dollars, said California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond on Wednesday.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed May budget revision would reduce funding to school districts by about $7 billion. The proposal includes a cut of $6.5 billion that is allocated through the Local Control Funding Formula, which directs additional funding to high-needs students — low-income, foster and homeless students, and English learners.

“We believe our school districts can’t reopen safely if they have to implement these kinds of cuts,” Thurmond said. 

Students, teachers and staff will need masks and hand sanitizer, Thurmond said. Schools will need to be sanitized every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and class sizes will need to be smaller to maintain 6 feet between everyone in the class.

Despite a suggestion from Newsom that schools start early to make up for learning loss during school closures, Thurmond said most districts plan to open on their usual fall opening dates in late August or early September, but that in some cases instruction could include some in-class instruction and some distance learning. 

“All of our focus on reopening is first and foremost safety for our students and for our educators and for our families,” Thurmond said.

The cost of reopening with social distancing, alternate school schedules and other safety guidelines will be costly for districts already struggling with budget cuts, said Kindra Britt, deputy superintendent of communications for the California Department of Education. 

The department is relying on federal dollars, including funds from the HEROES (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions) Act and more funds from the CARES Act, the first stimulus bill Congress approved in March, to make up for state budget cuts, Britt said.

Thurmond and other department of education officials are working with legislators and the governor to look at all possible scenarios, including what would happen if the federal dollars don’t arrive, Britt said.

“We will have to really have some tough conversations if we don’t get federal funding,” she said.

The state budget has yet to be approved by the Senate and there has been discussion about reallocating funds from other programs to increase education funding, Britt said.

Despite questions about funding, school districts and the education department are moving forward with plans for reopening. Decisions about when California school districts will reopen will be made locally, but there will be guidance from state and county health officials and the department, Thurmond said.

A California Department of Education task force that includes educators, education associations, union representatives and health officials has been sharing guidance about how to safely reopen schools with districts weekly, but will offer more comprehensive guidance soon, he said. 

Thurmond will host a videoconference with school district and public health officials Thursday to discuss districts’ plans for reopening schools and to share guidance. The videoconference can be viewed on the department’s Facebook page.

Conference attendees will discuss districts’ fiscal health, how schools will provide educational programs in the fall and how to ensure the health and safety of students and staff.

One of the unanswered questions will be who will pay for the personal protective equipment that will be required for staff and students, Britt said. “That’s what school districts want to know,” she said. “Who will pay for these masks and all the increased costs?”

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