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A small cohort of students attend in-person classes at Chula Vista High School during the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

A growing number of public schools are tapping coronavirus aid funds to show employees appreciation, provide stipends, hazard pay or incentivize their return to campuses following prolonged closures.

The payments – which vary in size and approach – are a drop in the giant bucket of COVID-19 school aid sent by the federal and state government, with the state throwing more money at districts that open schools for in-person instruction in the final months of the 2020-21 school year.

More than $2 billion in COVID-19 aid will flow to the region’s 42 public K-12 school districts following the latest state and federal relief packages, government records show. Schools were granted wide latitude over how to spend the money, and the new state law providing reopening incentive money explicitly allows funds to be spent on “salaries for certificated or classified employees providing in-person instruction or services.”

Records show schools are offering a variety of rationales to put COVID-19 relief money in employee pockets. Among them: time spent relocating classrooms for social distancing, cleaning facilities following confirmed COVID-19 cases, tracking student participation or simply coming back to teach or manage in person.

This week, Lakeside Union School Districts teachers are up for a stipend worth $450 to $900 to account for time spent since Oct. 1 keeping “daily logs of student participation and weekly logs of student engagement,” with the higher stipend given to teachers tracking multiple rosters of students, including middle school teachers.

Separately, special education teachers in the K-8 Lakeside district will receive a one-time stipend totaling $500 to $1,000, depending on their job title, while psychologists, speech pathologists and nurses will receive $1,500 “to account for the increased workload resulting from school closures and applicable health orders” throughout the school year, according to an agreement reached with the teachers’ union.

Lakeside district officials estimate the new stipends – funded by federal coronavirus aid – will cost nearly $246,500 in total, school board documents show. The district is expecting to receive $16.3 million in total COVID-19 aid, according to government records.

The latest deal follows several earlier stipends afforded to Lakeside employees, including a one-time $250 distance learning stipend granted to Lakeside’s 285 teachers, a one-time $300 stipend for maintenance employees “assigned to clean and disinfect school facilities recently occupied by person(s) with COVID-19” and one-time $200 to $300 stipends for eight non-teaching employees tasked with preparing templates for teachers to record weekly assignments and student participation at eight schools, Lakeside district records show.

Lakeside continues to offer full distance learning to students who want to remain online, but ended its hybrid learning program and welcomed students back to campus full time five days a week beginning April 12.

Rewarding Extra Work

Employees of the K-8 Mae L. Feaster Charter School in Chula Vista also received distance learning appreciation funds recently. There, each teacher and other certificated employees received $2,000, while non-teaching or classified employees received $500 to $1,000 each, depending on whether they are full- or part-time, school records show.

“What we have noticed in the past eight months is the incredible amount of time and energy beyond the regular workday that all of our staff have put into transforming everything that we are used to doing in person to a distance,” Feaster principal Sarah Motsinger said at the March 10 charter school board meeting. “We want to recognize them for that because if they were not going above and beyond. If they were not taking that extra time, our students wouldn’t be able to be logged on and ready every day.”

Feaster school officials say the stipend amounts roughly equate to an extra five days of work and will cost $163,000 in all – a small slice of the $7.5 million in total coronavirus aid the school is slated to receive, according to figures reported by the California Department of Education and EdSource. All told, the aid money represents a huge influx of cash for the 1,200-student Feaster school, which reported total revenues and expenses under $13 million last school year, school records show.

Feaster is reopening its campus for in-person instruction four days a week this week and teachers will be expected to do in-person and distance learning simultaneously to accommodate children who remain home.

The K-12 Mueller Charter School, also in Chula Vista, reopened its two campuses this month after serving only its more vulnerable students onsite earlier this year. Mueller previously gave nearly all part-time employees $500 and full-time employees $1,000 to pay for remote work expenses, like cell phones, internet and utilities, without requiring receipts or documentation of such expenses.

Mueller’s executive director Maureen DeLuca told Voice of San Diego the payments went to “all staff who were forced to work remotely” this school year, including office staff, administrators and teachers, but not hourly or custodial staff.

The payments cost a total of $110,000 and will be funded with federal CARES Act aid. Estimates from EdSource and government reports show Mueller is slated for more than $8.8 million in total COVID-19 aid. The two-school system reported less than $18 million in total revenues last school year.

The K-6 Solana Beach School District, meanwhile, plans to use $18,000 in COVID-19 relief dollars to pay teachers stipends totaling $180, $300 or $420 for expanding or moving their classrooms outside, into hallways, adjacent classrooms or entirely new classrooms to accommodate social distancing per a March agreement with the teachers union, records show.

The seaside district serving less than 3,000 students expects to receive more than $6 million in COVID-19 relief total, government agencies report.

At the even tinier Jamul-Dulzura Union Elementary School District serving about 740 K-8 students in East County, teachers were given a monthly $25 distance learning technology stipend under a deal reached last July, records show.

Incentives to Return in Person

Meanwhile, the San Ysidro School District and Sweetwater Union High School District took a different approach recently by offering employees return incentives to entice them back to campuses.

Sweetwater officials approved a one-time 7 percent pay increase for teachers who return to school in April, and another 2 percent pay bump in both May and June. Total payouts for teachers who return will average almost $812, based on the district’s average $88,620 teacher salary reported by the state department of education last year.

The Sweetwater district – which serves nearly 40,000 middle- and high-schoolers, reached similar deals with its non-teaching employees and counselors that are scheduled to go the school board for approval later this month, district officials said.

Altogether, Sweetwater’s employee return incentives are expected to cost $2.3 million and will be funded with the state’s new SB 86 reopening incentive funds, according to disclosure forms sent to the County Office of Education.

The latest incentives follow a sort of hazard pay program for Sweetwater’s child nutrition and custodial workers negotiated last July. Beginning in August during school closures, a $25 per week stipend automatically went to child nutrition workers and a $10 per hour stipend went to Sweetwater’s custodians “when cleaning a classroom or workspace following a reported and confirmed exposure to COVID-19 at that classroom or workspace,” district records show. Those stipends were estimated to cost the district $270,000, with most of the money coming from the cafeteria fund, records show.

Sweetwater is slated to get more than $204 million in coronavirus aid relief in total, according to figures reported by state and federal government agencies, and had already spent millions of aid dollars paying portions of certain employees’ salaries in the fall.

In the San Ysidro district, serving 4,475 K-8 students, leaders approved incentives for teachers and other certificated staff, as well as managers and certain non-teaching employees this month. The total price tag tops $1.8 million and will be funded by a combination of state SB 86 reopening incentives and federal COVID-19 relief dollars, district records show.

And more incentives may be coming.

“The district is working with all labor groups to ensure parity regarding the one-time stipends associated with the Hybrid Learning Program simultaneous instruction model, with the exception of the superintendent who will not receive a stipend,” wrote Francisco Mata, a San Ysidro district spokesman, in an email. “Only employees returning to work on-site shall be eligible to earn the stipend payment.”

Teachers who choose to return one day a week will receive a max of $1,400 to $1,600, depending on their title, while teachers choosing to return two days a week will receive a max of $4,950 to $5,400, according to the deals. Managers will receive $7,000, and so-called non-teaching “confidential” staff will receive a one-time payment totaling 7 percent of their salary.

Mata said the incentives aim to address the disproportionately high COVID-19 case rates in the local community seen throughout the pandemic.

“The devastating impact of the COVID pandemic on our San Ysidro community presents significant fear, trauma and challenges regarding the safe reopening of our schools.  We appreciate our teachers’ courage and desire to return to the classroom for our students amidst the fact that the San Ysidro community is the county’s geographic COVID epicenter,” Mata wrote.

The San Ysidro district is currently slated to get more than $28 million in aid relief total, according to figures reported by state and federal government agencies.

‘It Is Difficult to Say This Person Deserves Hazard Pay and This Person Does Not’

In January, the Chula Vista Elementary School District gave COVID-19 pay to employees working in person with students with disabilities, as well as its child nutrition workers at a total cost of nearly $236,500, district records show. Nutrition workers received a one-time $200 stipend, while special education workers received $50 for every 20 hours spent working with students in person, retroactive to Oct. 9, 2020.

The limited scope of the payments at the time attracted criticism from some other employees in the district, according to a video recording of the meeting.

“Many departments have been working through the start of the pandemic. Not just CNS … It is a real slap in the face and shows how much we are not appreciated and valued,” read a comment from an unidentified member of the Chula Vista Classified Employee Organization at the Jan. 20 board meeting. “Would you pay only third grade teachers or all teachers? If CVCEO members don’t all get it, then no one should get it.”

“Very disappointing that people putting themselves at risk every day to support our students and their families are being overlooked,” said a comment card from an unidentified library technician at the same meeting, who claimed to be working with the YMCA students supervised on campus during the school closures.

Chula Vista schools are opening more broadly this month, but campuses offered some onsite child care for distance learning earlier this year for children of essential workers and vulnerable students with help from the YMCA.

Peter Zeitler, president of the Chula Vista Classified Employee Organization and a nutrition worker, acknowledged some employees who have been working on campuses since the fall were left out of the deal, but said the district estimated the cost to include everyone and declined to pay that amount.

“That’s what the district was offering for us to do,” Zeitler told the board at the Jan. 20 meeting. “I think spending money on air purifiers and that, rather than giving my employees a stipend for while they’re working with kids, you know, I don’t agree with it, but I had to take what I could take for right now.”

Chula Vista board member Kate Bishop asked to revisit the issue to expand the payments.

“It is difficult to say this person deserves hazard pay and this person does not, when everybody is on our campuses,” Bishop said.

Fellow board member Lucy Ugarte echoed those sentiments and signaled a desire for more payments.

“There’s nothing keeping us from going back to the table and making sure that they get that kind of deal as well,” Ugarte said.

Chula Vista Elementary School District expects to receive more than $115 million in coronavirus relief aid total, government agencies report.

Schools Have Lots of Leeway

In general, state and federal coronavirus aid aims to help schools pay for safety precautions to help make school campuses safe or help with the transition to remote online learning or pay for extra supports to limit learning losses students would experience this school year and beyond.

But lawmakers also gave school leaders a lot of leeway over how they spend the money, with the CARES Act broadly “providing principals and others school leaders with the resources necessary to address the needs of their individual schools.”

California lawmakers also specifically wanted to incentivize more schools to reopen their doors when they approved SB 86 in March, a $6.56 billion funding package that tied $2 billion to firm reopening deadlines this month and permits payment of employee salaries if they provide in-person instruction or services. That aid is focused on elementary students, though, and districts have flexibility in deciding how much in-person instruction time to offer.

In districts like San Diego Unified, some schools are now offering four days of in-person instruction while others are offering just two days, depending on classroom space constraints and the number of children who wanted to return. Districts serving middle and high school students only have to offer one secondary grade level of in-person instruction to qualify for the SB 86 reopening incentive funds this year, in addition to identified vulnerable student groups like those experiencing homelessness. So far, Sweetwater is only offering in-person instruction to its entire senior class in addition to those vulnerable groups.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the average one-time payout for teachers in the Sweetwater Union High School District. They will average almost $812.

Ashly McGlone

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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