San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten announces school closures amid the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Here is a vision for how schools might look in the fall: Imagine an elementary school with 500 students.

All students will come to school each weekday, for a full school day. But they won’t all be in the classroom at the same time.

Campuses will need to be remade. Ten or twelve 12 might be in a classroom with their teacher. Others will spread out into places that weren’t previously used for schoolwork. Adults will supervise small groups in auditoriums, cafeterias, libraries, playgrounds and parking lots if need be.  Not to mention, a nurse for every school.

Those are the broad strokes of San Diego Unified School District’s evolving plan to reopen, according to school board Vice President Richard Barrera. But there’s one big holdup: There will be no return to physical school without a substantial increase in funding from the governor’s most recent budget proposal, Barrera said.

“It’s the difference between being able to physically reopen and continuing the entire next school year with distance learning,” he said.

Superintendent Cindy Marten echoed that message Monday. She, along with several big-city superintendents, sent a letter to state leaders, saying they must have more money.

“We have sent a message to Sacramento – a clear warning to Sacramento that schools cannot continue to operate safely in the fall if there’s a declining state budget for education,” Marten said in a Facebook live video.

But Barrera acknowledged that Gov. Gavin Newsom, in all likelihood, cannot meet school district’s funding requests without outside help. The federal government also needs to step in, said Barrera.

The majority of school funding comes from states, not the federal government. And California is projected to lose $54 billion in tax revenue due to the economic shutdown caused by the pandemic. For schools that will translate to a 10 percent loss in revenue, compared with projections before the pandemic, Newsom said last week.

Barrera and Marten say a 10 percent cut just can’t work. Schools will need more money, not less, than originally proposed in this year’s budget, they say.

Here’s why, according to Barrera: Schools need to hire one full-time nurse for each school. They need more counselors to deal with mental health fallout from the pandemic. They need more custodians to make sure schools have a deep clean regularly. They need to remake some physical spaces. Without those changes, going back to school simply isn’t safe, he said.

All in all, schools need an additional 20 to 30 percent more funding than they would otherwise to safely reopen in the fall, said Barrera. Without it, they won’t open, he said.

The divide between the governor’s proposed budget and what school leaders are demanding appears unbridgeable. Newsom is offering 10 percent less than he originally offered. School district leaders are saying they need 20 to 30 percent more than originally budgeted. Enter: the federal government.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a relief package on Friday that would bridge the funding gap for schools in California, said Barrera. But it’s unclear when the U.S. Senate will take it up, and whether it has a shot of passing once it does.

“If they take two months and then provide the money that will delay physically reopening by a month or two,” said Barrera. And that is if the Senate passes the bill at all, he said.

Most Republicans have signaled they won’t support the $3 trillion spending package. The New York Times called it “more a messaging document than a viable piece of legislation.”

There are two changes in particular that school leaders would like to see Newsom make to his budget, Barrera said.

School leaders like that Newsom pulled as much as the law would allow him to pull from the state’s roughly $17 billion rainy day fund. But Barrera said he wants schools to get a higher percentage of the money.

Marten and Barrera also want the state to change the way it allocates money. Previously, the state handed out money based on how many kids showed up to school every day. Barrera said that children will be more likely to be out of school for many reasons – including that they are medically fragile – next year. The current funding model would unnecessarily penalize districts, Barrera argued.

District leaders would like the state to base its funding on average attendance for the last three years. Incidentally, this would help isolate big-city districts from declines in enrollment that have plagued them for more than a decade.

Marten’s letter, which was written with the superintendents of five other large school districts, recommended several additional changes, including enacting a statewide utility surcharge that would pay for student devices, and suspending class size requirements.

The changes combined would not make up the difference between the governor’s proposed budget and what Barrera said is needed for a blanket reopening of schools.

When pressed, Barrera did acknowledge San Diego Unified might still be able to pursue some kind of partial reopening if it doesn’t get the increased funding.

Poor and vulnerable families need schools to reopen more than anyone, he said. If the district could not find a way for every student to go to school every day, he and some other board members might advocate for an opening that prioritized physical space for vulnerable students, he said.

Some parents might be highly critical of such a plan, he said.

“There’s no realistic picture of society reopening and the economy reopening – and having a chance to recover – without schools reopening,” Barrera said. Governments must prioritize the money to make that happen, he said.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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