Clockwise from top: Students at Bear Valley Middle School in Escondido attend class, a Poway High School faculty member gets ready to hand a school-issued laptop to a student, San Diego Unified hands out free food and meals to families outside Clark Middle School after announcing school closures. / Photos by Adriana Heldiz

San Diego County public schools used their first major wave of COVID-19 relief funds last year to make huge investments in distance learning and opted to spend far less on things like protective gear or coronavirus testing, a new Voice of San Diego analysis of state data shows. The same trend was seen among K-12 public schools statewide, though some of the region’s largest districts forged a different path – spending more on protective gear, redirected personnel or crisis counseling.

Following last year’s pandemic lockdowns, the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, passed by federal lawmakers in March 2020 sent nearly $296 million to 161 public K-12 San Diego County school districts and charter schools to help deal with the virus’ impact, according to the California Department of Finance.

Eventually, local public schools will see more than $2 billion in coronavirus aid on top of their usual funding, sent in multiple federal and state aid packages approved over the last year. Schools are still figuring out how to spend all the unprecedented cash.

But a closer look at the CARES Act spending in 2020 reveals school district priorities during the initial phases of the pandemic. Many kept their school doors largely closed and focused on online learning, while others focused on things needed to reopen school campuses, like personal protective equipment, or PPE.

CARES Act spending reports submitted to the state Department of Finance reveal distance learning costs took the cake for most public schools across the region and state, with costs billed for computers, new instructional materials or software, increased broadband capacity or professional development for online instruction, among other things.

Out of $234 million CARES Act funds spent by San Diego County public schools through December 2020, 72 percent went to distance learning. That is a larger share than the 59 percent spent by schools across the state, which all together reported spending more than $3.54 billion in CARES Act aid in 2020, the state data shows.

After spending the lion’s share on distance learning costs, San Diego County schools spent just 8 percent on PPE like masks, followed by redirected personnel, at 7 percent, per the data.

Redirected personnel costs could include overtime for some employees responding to COVID-19 in some way, or employees reassigned from their normal duties, like school bus drivers transporting meals to families instead of children, among other things, according to the state’s reporting manual.

Schools were given wide latitude in how they could spend the CARES Act money and other coronavirus aid funds, including spending on existing employees.

Local districts like the Sweetwater Union High School District charged a portion of all payroll costs for counselors, nurses and certain teachers to the CARES Act fund, while the Lakeside Union School District, Jamul-Dulzura Union Elementary School District and both the Mae L. Feaster Charter School and Mueller Charter School in Chula Vista gave employees remote work or distance learning stipends. Others were more selective, using aid funds for hazard pay for employees working on campus with students or custodians cleaning school sites after confirmed COVID-19 cases, school district records show.

It turns out Sweetwater’s personnel spending using CARES Act aid dramatically outpaced its peers, while Oceanside Unified School District’s spending on PPE surpassed all else at the district. San Marcos Unified was also an outlier, spending more on crisis counseling than distance learning, the state data shows.

San Diego Unified – the county’s largest district – spent $67 million in CARES Act money on just three categories: 88 percent for distance learning, 10 percent for PPE and 2 percent for its food program.

Here’s how the county’s 10 largest public school districts spent their CARES Act funds compared to schools across the county and state.

The “other” category includes items some districts submitted separate from the predetermined categories. Chula Vista Elementary School District reported spending $724,000 in CARES Act money on summer school programs, $844,000 on “supplemental learning opportunities” and $28,000 on special education assessments in the other category. San Marcos Unified reported nearly $2.5 million in “other” spending for crisis counseling, while Grossmont Union High School District reported spending nearly $78,000 on mental health, state data shows.

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

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