san diego school covid
Third grade students at Encanto Elementary watch a video during class. San Diego Unified School District reopened classrooms in April 2021 to students whose families have opted to return to in-person instruction. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

It has been a year – especially for school-aged children, their families, school administrators and teachers.

But lawmakers at both the state and federal levels knew times would be hard even early on when the coronavirus pandemic hit, and schools closed with other major sectors of society. They sent schools a tsunami of money to try to help.

How local schools decided to spend the money thus far reveals a lot about their priorities, and there is so much more money and decision-making to come.

Here’s a glimpse of what Voice of San Diego’s series on K-12 public school coronavirus relief spending has found so far.

It Is Raining Cash

Three major federal coronavirus relief packages approved since March 2020, combined with state relief packages, sent unprecedented amounts of money to the region’s K-12 schools over the last year on top of their regular funding.

Government agencies pumped more than $2 billion into the county’s 42 public school districts and the San Diego County Office of Education, which educate roughly 500,000 students. (See how much your district is set to receive in our database here.)

The money will continue to trickle in over the next several months. School leaders are still figuring out what to do with it all, as their once-troubled balance sheets swell.

There’s still plenty of needs to pay for, especially as more school re-openings take place after yearlong closures in many places.

For one, students are struggling academically. Reports of “D” and “F” grades rising have become commonplace. Some schools are planning to revamp summer school and tutoring programs to help make up for learning losses or provide other supports.

Student mental health is also a point of concern, and one that has not been tackled by many so far, even though aid spending on such programs is allowable.

Then there are the hard costs of making schools safe for in-person learning while the pandemic continues. Some schools still need to increase their stockpiles of protective gear or are expanding coronavirus testing programs for staff and students now back on campus.

Money Often Did Not Come With School Openings

Despite all the aid, San Diego County’s public schools – including the largest, San Diego Unified School District – remained closed to most students for the last year. In January, 99 percent of San Diego Unified’s 97,000 students remained in distance learning full time. Those numbers dropped to 50 percent this month, with the other half now coming to campus at least part time.

Some parents and lawmakers were frustrated the money didn’t prompt more schools to open sooner, like many private schools managed to do well before vaccines were available to teachers or the masses.

Notably, Assemblyman Phil Ting from San Francisco, who chairs the state Assembly budget committee, said sending all the aid money last year without stricter accountability was a mistake and the closures harmed kids.

That failure prompted Ting and other state lawmakers to require schools to reopen for in-person instruction when approving the $6.56 billion state aid package in March 2021. To receive $2 billion worth of the coronavirus aid, California school districts by April 1 had to offer some kind of in-person instruction to kindergarten through second grade students, plus students identified in certain vulnerable groups across all grades while their county is in the state’s most restrictive purple tier, as dictated by various coronavirus health metrics. If the county is in the lesser red tier, in-person instruction had to expand to include all elementary students, plus at least one secondary grade. Districts can provide hybrid learning, with alternating student cohorts on different days or hours of the week and still receive the grants.

For every day schools do not meet the state reopening requirements, they forfeit 1 percent of the incentive funds.

“We needed something that was aspirational, but also achievable. … The whole point was to get districts that weren’t open to reopen,” Ting told Voice of San Diego.

Unfortunately, the reopening rules have still left most secondary students in some districts at home.

The Sweetwater Union High School District, for instance, welcomed back its high school seniors this month for hybrid instruction, after only serving vulnerable student groups like those experiencing homelessness. No other grades have been welcomed back, but that is enough to keep its $12.7 million in state reopening incentive funds.

Some Districts Achieved the Impossible

While most students across the region were relegated to online instruction alone for the last year, some schools did open at least part time – even at the secondary level.

Bear Valley Middle School in Escondido was one of them. The school used coronavirus aid money to hire more employees to ensure smaller class sizes could be achieved.

escondido schools covid
A Bear Valley Middle School teacher helps a student with his assignment. The Escondido Union School District has offered a hybrid model that includes in-person instruction. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Students remained in cohorts of 12 students or fewer all day, twice a week, traveling class to class. The school required masks, did COVID-19 symptom screenings and implemented other safety precautions to prevent illness. When coronavirus cases did arise, quarantines helped prevent the spread.

Distance Learning Was King

Spending reports filed by schools districts with state finance officials revealed that of all the ways districts could spend CARES Act aid funds – the first federal relief package – distance learning was king.

Out of $234 million CARES Act funds spent by San Diego County public schools through December 2020, 72 percent went to distance learning, with costs billed for computers, new instructional materials or software, increased broadband capacity or professional development for online instruction, among other things.

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, according to the data.

Relief Funds Went to Employee Pay, and That’s Mostly OK

Relief money aimed to help districts pay for school safety precautions, materials to transition to online learning or extra supports to limit learning loss. Coronavirus spending rules gave districts a lot of discretion in deciding what can be billed as a COVID-19 expense, and spending on employees is generally allowed.

Still, some locals questioned whether Sweetwater officials’ used aid money to backfill a budget deficit at the expense of making schools safe for reopening sooner.

A growing number of public schools are also tapping coronavirus aid funds to show employees appreciation, provide stipends, hazard pay or incentivize their return to campuses. Payments that went straight to employee pockets are a drop in the giant COVID-19 aid bucket.

More commonly, school officials billed employee payroll and benefit amounts to coronavirus relief funds on the backend, sometimes without employee knowledge.

A VOSD analysis of coronavirus relief spending records from the county’s 10 largest districts revealed most aid money in 2020 went to employee costs, even amid prolonged campus closures.

Frequently, districts charged employee time spent on professional development for distance learning. Some, like the Sweetwater district, charged a percentage of certain employees’ compensation costs across the board, arguing their jobs were “substantially different” this year due to the pandemic, or simply to retain their jobs or because they met school needs in some way. Grossmont schools also charged entire classifications of employees to COVID-19 relief accounts.

Schools that reopened in at least hybrid form in the fall also used aid money to hire new employees to accommodate smaller in-person class sizes, among other things.

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

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