For our public schools to safely reopen their doors for in-person learning, critical needs will have to be met. This will be true whether the school districts decide to offer half-day sessions, two or three full-days per week or, eventually, traditional full-week instruction.
California has requested additional federal stimulus dollars to aid this effort. Instead, President Trump has told public schools that if they do not fully open now for in-person instruction, despite the fact that it presents the highest risk for coronavirus spread in school settings, they will miss out both on federal stimulus funds and already appropriated education dollars.
The president also says that if school districts refuse to reopen with in-person instruction, then school funding should be reallocated to parents who want to send their children to schools of their choice.
Making stimulus funds contingent on schools reopening for in-person instruction disregards why schools need the funding — to have the ability to safely reopen and provide crucial services and supports.
Given the vital role schools play in the well-being of our youth and our economy, ensuring schools have the needed resources should be a priority. Congress is negotiating various stimulus packages now. It is imperative that we channel our collective voice to secure the support necessary to get our students and teachers safely back in the classroom.
What will a safe re-entry require?
Once public health criteria are met, stimulus funding is essential for personal protective equipment, thermometers, cleaning and sanitizing supplies and equipment, and additional classroom supplies to prevent sharing among students.
Funds are also needed for improvements to heating, ventilation and air conditioning, additional classroom structures for social distancing and increased transportation services to accommodate fewer students on each school bus.
These are in addition to costs to provide distance learning — digital devices, online-learning platforms, professional development — and increased student services to mitigate learning loss and to address mental health concerns.
My school district plans to open Aug. 19 using a fully remote model and, when permitted, to phase in a blended in-person model beginning with half-day instruction five days a week. We will continue however to offer fully remote options to meet the diverse needs of our families.
Our district estimates that it will receive a total of $10 million from the various funding sources created by the CARES Act, the federal stimulus package passed in late March, to cover coronavirus-related items and services through the end of December, when most of the initial stimulus funding must be spent.
Districts will be forced to consider more budget cuts and tapping reserves if they do not receive additional stimulus dollars for expenses beyond December, including addressing undetermined levels of learning loss and supporting fully remote, blended in-person and remote, and district home school learning models.
Many school districts also may incur significant interest expenses and borrowing costs to cover late payments of education funds we anticipate receiving from the state. Our district’s estimate is $350,000. These payments are deferred because they depend upon the state receiving the federal funding.
The Trump administration’s approach particularly jeopardizes lower tax base districts, which rely more heavily on federal funding to help provide an education and support services comparable to what wealthier districts can offer. Districts are working tirelessly but cannot shoulder the brunt of the pandemic and economic realities alone.
There are no ideal solutions for getting our kids back on campus. But expecting our public schools to do so without necessary financial resources is no solution at all.
We cannot permit the federal government to push all school districts to re-open with in-person instruction and then punish districts for making decisions based on local realities. We must reach out to our congressional representatives to convey our expectations and express support for a stimulus package with direct funding for school districts, without requirements to first physically reopen.
Jenny Fitzgerald is the vice president of the Conejo Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees. The views expressed in this commentary are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the board as a whole.
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