escondido schools covid
A Bear Valley Middle School student works on a class assignment. The Escondido Union School District offers hybrid-model in-classroom at all campuses during the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Public school campuses remained closed to most K-12 students across the region for almost a year, but that did not stop school districts from spending millions of COVID-19 relief dollars on employees, alleviating pressure from their normal payroll, public records obtained by Voice of San Diego show.

From principals, bus drivers, custodians and school police in the San Diego Unified School District, to nurses, psychologists and counselors in both the Sweetwater Union High School District and San Marcos Unified School District, school employees all over the county had their pay wholly or partially funded by coronavirus aid, sometimes without their knowledge, district records and interviews reveal.

Of the nearly $178 million in coronavirus aid funds San Diego County’s 10 largest school districts spent through December 2020, almost $90 million – or 51 percent – went to employee pay and benefit costs, an analysis of district records reveals.

San Diego Unified alone charged several COVID-19 relief funds more than $47 million for employee costs in 2020 while keeping campuses almost entirely closed. The amount represents 76 percent of the $63 million in total relief spending recorded by the district at the time.

The 10 largest San Diego County districts educate more than 351,000 of the county’s nearly 500,000 K-12 students.

The employee charges took various forms and are generally allowed under coronavirus relief spending rules.

The relief money sent by state and federal lawmakers over the last year aimed to help districts pay for school safety precautions like personal protective equipment, materials to transition to online learning, or extra supports to limit learning losses students experienced. The CARES Act also broadly provided “principals and others school leaders with the resources necessary to address the needs of their individual schools.”

But guidance from the U.S. Treasury drives home that the money was meant to pay for new needs and extras: “With respect to personnel expenses, though the Fund was not intended to be used to cover government payroll expenses generally, the Fund was intended to provide assistance to address increased expenses, such as the expense of hiring new personnel as needed to assist with the government’s response to the public health emergency and to allow recipients facing budget pressures not to have to lay off or furlough employees who would be needed to assist with that purpose.”

At least some lawmakers and parents were unhappy the early aid funding did not bring more school openings, and state lawmakers made sure its 2021 aid package required openings.

Assemblyman Phil Ting from San Francisco, who chairs the state Assembly budget committee, said at a legislative hearing earlier this year it was a mistake to not require more accountability sooner, and the closures “caused significant harm.” He also expressed optimism the new state aid package passed in March would “take all the excuses off the table.”

During the closures, some local taxpayers – including those in the Sweetwater district – also wondered whether aid funds were used to backfill budget shortfalls rather than buy things needed to make campuses safe for students and employees to return.

“We think school districts are well aware of the allowable uses and limitations on the coronavirus relief funds – most notably that these funds cannot be used to fill shortfalls in general fund revenue,” wrote Amy Li, a schools fiscal and policy analyst with the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, in a December email. “Given that these rules are quite clear, we have yet to hear anything that would give us reason to be concerned that districts are using these funds inappropriately, even when these funds are used for redirected school staff.”

Districts spending money on employee costs that would have existed without the pandemic does free up other school district general funds, though, and many of those accounts were strapped for cash before the public health crisis.

Their balance sheets are unrecognizable now, following a year of unprecedented state and federal aid on top of normal funding.

Some Money Went Directly to Employees

The records produced by the county’s 10 largest school districts in response to a California Public Records Act request provide a clearer look at local school pandemic spending, offering more detail than limited aid expense reports submitted to the state.

When it came to employee spending, districts commonly charged aid funds for employee time for professional development for distance learning during school closures. 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.

Sometimes districts sent aid money to employee pockets via stipends or hazard pay – a trend that’s catching on locally following even more aid and school reopening incentives awarded this year. All those reasons are typically permissible under coronavirus aid spending rules, which gave districts a lot of discretion in deciding what can be billed as a COVID expense.

For districts that reopened in hybrid form in the fall – like the Escondido Union School District – leaders spent aid money to hire teachers to accommodate smaller in-person class sizes.

The Grossmont Union High School District also hired some substitute teachers to supervise students in person while they received online education from teachers who did not come back to campus. Like Sweetwater schools, Grossmont also used aid money to pay at least a portion of some employees’ compensation districtwide, said Grossmont spokesman Collin McGlashen.

“Given their jobs were redirected toward COVID-19 response, our Educational Technology Services, Instructional Technology, and Translation Services teams were paid out of COVID-19 funds,” McGlashen wrote. “When existing staff was paid from COVID-19 funds, it was because their work for that period was focused on COVID-19 response.”

Cajon Valley Union School District was one of the first to provide in-person instruction using aid funds during the pandemic, beginning with a summer school program last summer attended by 6,000 students and run by 900 employees.

Students at Magnolia Elementary stand at arm’s length waiting to wash their hands after their recess break. Magnolia is one of several schools in the Cajon Valley Union School District to offer child care for families during the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Students at Magnolia Elementary stand at arm’s length waiting to wash their hands after their recess break. Magnolia is one of several schools in the Cajon Valley Union School District to offer child care for families during the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The district then offered hybrid instruction in the fall, and used aid money to hire 27 learning loss intervention teachers, pay for counselors and others, district records show.

One District Interpreted the Rules Much More Narrowly

The Chula Vista Elementary School District remained largely closed for the last year, but turned to the YMCA for distance learning supervision for more than 1,000 vulnerable students and children of essential workers. The district spent $1.7 million in aid funds for the YMCA contract, district records show. Those costs are not counted in the COVID-19 relief employee spending amount for the district, which came in at just 7 percent, or $1.5 million of the $20.5 million in total relief funds spent in 2020.

Chula Vista’s superintendent, Francisco Escobedo, said the district interpreted relief spending rules narrowly when it came to employees. Almost all the $1.5 million spent on employees was for professional development for online learning, he said.

“At least at our district, we felt that it would be best to use these funds on what they were intended for, at least in our interpretation, anything above and beyond our scope that had to do with COVID,” Escobedo said in a March interview.

For instance, Chula Vista’s instructional aides who supervised special education students on site beginning in the fall were not paid with coronavirus relief funds unless their hours went beyond their usual schedules, said Oscar Esquivel, the district’s deputy superintendent.

Employee relief spending in the district is on the rise, though.

In January, Chula Vista provided some employees – those working in person with students with disabilities and child nutrition workers – hazard pay with $236,500 in aid funds, though the move angered employees left out.

And with schools now reopened, “our schools are going to need extra personnel,” some more than others, Escobedo said.

Among other things, Escobedo said in March the district planned to hire impact teachers, extend noontime supervisor hours to monitor student arrivals and departures and make sure student cohorts are “as stable as possible,” expand counseling and therapy services, and provide more teacher professional development aimed at providing social emotional support.

“Learning loss and the social emotional impact of COVID on our kids is very significant. So, right now we are trying to figure out how we are going to use these funds to mitigate learning loss, to mitigate some of the social emotional harm that our kids may have come in once they return,” he said. The district was also working on an enrollment-based formula to divvy up some aid funds for each school to allow principals to decide their staffing needs.

A new state law enacted in March provides schools reopening incentive money and explicitly allows the funds to be spent on “salaries for certificated or classified employees providing in-person instruction or services.”

‘This Is a Lost Year’

Many parents who shouldered the burdens of homeschooling for a year believe the aid money should have come with more school site openings, or at least more supports for students struggling to learn online. Some wonder where their appreciation pay is – like the $500 to $2,000 recently granted to Mae L. Feaster Charter School employees.

What about the parents who are struggling?” said Ashley Lopez, a parent of two Feaster children who has begun paying $300 a month for private tutoring for her fifth-grade son who struggled online. Both Lopez, who works at San Ysidro Health, and her husband are essential workers, so her children received supervision through the local YMCA program for free while receiving online instruction from Feaster teachers.

“The curriculum keeps going even if half don’t understand,” she said. “No disrespect to the kids that work at the YMCA,” but they are “not educated. They didn’t go to school to be instructional aides.”

Lopez would have liked to see the charter school – which is part of the Chula Vista Elementary School District but operates with more autonomy – use its aid funds to hire more instructional aides, counselors and teachers, and reopen sooner in person.

“I think if planned properly, appropriately, then they could have been in the classroom a long time ago,” said Lopez.I don’t think they are utilizing the funds for the kids.”

Fellow Feaster parent Robert Sandoval also wishes Feaster had used its autonomy to reopen sooner than April this year, and hired more instructional aides to support students falling behind.

“I feel like this is a lost year,” said Sandoval. “They just lost out on an incredible opportunity to be a leader. … It could have put the school on the map and show others how it’s done. … Money should have not been a problem.”

His daughter at Feaster is typically an honors student, but she came home for the first time with an F on her progress report during the pandemic, which “was truly shocking for me,” he said. Feaster officials “haven’t done the job I expected them to be doing when they should be looking out for our kids,” Sandoval said.

Sandoval also has two children attending Chula Vista High in the Sweetwater Union High School District, which remains closed to most students. Just seniors – beginning in April 2021 – and vulnerable students are eligible for hybrid instruction instead of distance learning alone.

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

Feaster and Hilltop Middle School parent Anna Cabral, who works as an emergency room coordinator, said she understood the school closures in light of the higher COVID-19 case rates in the community and common multigenerational housing in the area, which makes families more vulnerable.

But the drawbacks of online learning most of the year have been apparent, even for her high achieving sixth-grade daughter at Feaster. With limited instruction hours this year, she said her daughter’s teacher began pairing her with struggling students to “teach her peers, essentially” during online breakout room sessions.

Cabral wants to see more hiring done with coronavirus relief funds – like custodial staff, instructional aides and bilingual counselors.

“Once these kids go back, there is going to be a high need for social emotional learning. I don’t think Feaster has addressed that yet,” Cabral said in March.

Even More Money, and Hopefully, Openings

The bulk of the aid money spent last year came from the CARES Act, passed by federal lawmakers in March 2020.

But since December, school coronavirus aid amounts have skyrocketed, quadrupling in many districts thanks to a series of new federal and state aid packages that will eventually push local K-12 coronavirus aid amounts past $2 billion, according to government agencies.

All that money, combined with access to COVID-19 vaccines and lower case rates, has spurred more districts to reopen in recent weeks – openings that will also allow districts to keep state reopening incentive funds.

Beginning this month, some San Diego Unified schools began offering students 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.

san diego school covid
Superintendent Cindy Marten speaks to third grade students at Encanto Elementary on San Diego Unified’s first day back to in-person instruction. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Superintendent Cindy Marten speaks to third grade students at Encanto Elementary on San Diego Unified’s first day back to in-person instruction. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

But the prolonged school closures have had lingering impacts. Student mental health, for one, is coming into focus. And the closures spurred some parents to sue local districts like San Diego Unified, alleging officials violated the law by not providing more in-person instruction sooner. Those cases will still need to be resolved.

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

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