School leaders in Los Angeles County joined a growing chorus for more state and federal assistance Thursday, May 21, asserting that public school systems will struggle to safely reopen schools this fall without adequate funding.
The appeals came in response to an announcement by state Superintendent Tony Thurmond that most California schools would reopen in August or September with public health modifications, ranging from face masks to staggered playtime and smaller class sizes, but need federal dollars to do so.
It came days after Gov. Gavin Newsom projected a slash in the state post-coronavirus public education budget, by around 10% or $19 billion over two years. The news hit hard at school districts with longstanding financial troubles and rising pandemic-related emergency costs like technological devices and food assistance.
Schools cannot be expected to abide by the extensive CDC guidelines for reopening schools with less money, said Thurmond in a conference call with principals and administrators last week.
“We understand that adding social distancing conditions are unavoidable expenses but must be provided for the safety of our students. Clearly we need the assistance of the federal government,” he said.
Guidelines for reopening schools from the Center for Disease Control include enforcing face coverings for all staff and able students, disinfecting surfaces several times a day, and social distancing in classrooms and on playgrounds.
They suggest staggered schedules, altering layout of classrooms, adding physical barriers in places like check-in desks or between bathroom sinks, and serving meals in classrooms instead of cafeterias.
All that is likely to increase school districts’ operating costs, on top of already spent emergency procurements for technology and food distribution over the past two months.
Alex Cherniss, Superintendent of Schools, Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, said he was unable to watch Thurmond’s speech last week. But in a letter dated May 21, he and nine other superintendents, serving more than 100,000 students from Hermosa Beach to Beverly Hills, encouraged the governor to be flexible with guidelines.
”If we’re too restrictive in our guidelines we won’t be able to successfully reopen our schools,” Cherniss said via phone last week. “It will cause issues with so many aspects of our society, but most importantly it will negatively impact the kids.”
In the letter, superintendents stated some guidelines are impractical or difficult to enforce. Those include social distancing six-feet apart in the classroom, requiring face coverings for everyone and barring large gatherings.
“While many of these proposed guidelines may be feasible in a hospital setting or a commercial business setting, we do not believe they are feasible or practical in a school setting,” the letter states.
Cherniss said while the first day of school for PVPUSD, scheduled for Aug. 26, is fast approaching, the district is focused on policies and procedures to safely open the schools instead of a specific date for the first day of classes.
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At the Los Angeles Unified School district board meeting May 19, deputy superintendent Megan Reilly warned that pandemic precautions amid projected budget cuts would be financially unfeasible. “The notion that schools can continue to operate safely in the fall with a decreased state budget is not realistic,” she said. “We cannot, in good conscience, risk the health and safety of our students and staff by returning to the classroom prematurely and without the funding for the necessary precautions.”
At the cash-strapped Pasadena Unified School District, Superintendent Brian McDonald agreed, saying state superintendent Tony Thurmond’s views on funding were “absolutely right.”
“I don’t know how we increase spending to make sure that our school sites and central offices are safe and secure … in the midst of budget cuts,” said McDonald. “We can’t reopen safely if we don’t get additional funds or if we have to implement the kinds of cuts that we’re facing.”
L.A. County Superintendent of Schools Debra Duardo said she expected to provide a planning framework for school districts next week, and plans to advocate for “adequate funding” at the state level.
“With billions of dollars expected to be cut from K-12 public education, schools are going to face extraordinary challenges in ensuring the safe physical reopening of campuses and in addressing the inequities created and exacerbated by this crisis,” Duardo said in a statement.
“Whenever we return to school, educators must be well-equipped to tackle these enormous obstacles to learning.”
Whittier City School District Superintendent Marc Patterson said the budget cuts pose problems for schools in his district, which are likely to see a mix of “distance learning” and in-person instruction in the fall.
Newsom’s projected cuts mean a loss of more than $7 million of the district’s $80 million budget, and coronavirus guidelines would call for steep class size reductions.
“It’s virtually impossible to do it with the money we’re given,” Patterson said.