Funk: Guidelines and funding for reopening schools is lacking
California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed emergency legislation Tuesday to provide up to $1.1 billion in funding to fight COVID-19 in the state. Image courtesy of the California Office of the Governor

Everyday we hear something from either Gov. Gavin Newsom or State Superintendent Tony Thurmond about the need to open schools this fall for in-person learning.

However, the support and guidelines has been shockingly lacking from the California State Department of Education or from the Governor’s Office. In fact, the COVID-19 Industry Guidance released on June 5 had nothing new that the Department of Santa Clara Public Health had not already released.

Many would like schools to reopen, but I’m afraid for many, it is for the wrong reason. I keep hearing schools need to open for the workforce to be able to go back to work. I also hear the phrase, “childcare for the frontline workers.” I agree that there is a correlation between the ability to go to work and the ability to have childcare for one to work. But, when I hear it as the main drum beat for reopening, it causes me to pause and wonder why California has the 5th largest economy in the world, yet we rank in the low 40s in school funding? This is not a revenue issue; it is a priority issue. Education is not our top priority; therefore, we do not fund public education at an appropriate level.

This symbiotic relationship has had an unintended, negative impact on public education. We are not a childcare institution. Our public charge is to provide the best possible education for all students to prepare them to become active members of our society. However, we are treated and funded as a glorified childcare center.

One thing that COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated to society is teaching is not easy. Society takes for granted that the average high school teacher caseload is 150+ students. In most schools, our teachers see these students every day. While sheltering-in-place, some families are struggling keeping one or two children engaged all day.

We have a pending teacher shortage in California of 100,000 teachers. There are many factors that lead to this shortage, but we clearly have fewer candidates enrolling in teacher preparation programs. With starting salaries in Northern California anywhere between $50,000 to $60,000 and taking anywhere from 15 to 25 years to reach the top of the salary schedule, it is no wonder there is shortage of teachers. Society does not value a career in teaching.

To add insult to injury, Newsom’s May Budget Revision proposes a 10% reduction to California public school funding due to the economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is an approximately $1,220 per student reduction. Before we can even consider reopening schools this fall, the safety of our staff, students and families must be the highest priority.

Educators want to reopen school for in-person instruction as soon as possible. We must determine the safest methods to return to in-person instruction. However, the cost to implement these measures, which includes the cost for PPE equipment, cleaning materials, hand sanitizer and disinfectant, will increase our costs by approximately $500 per student.

Based on a recent survey of teachers, students and staff, we must continue to provide the cost of implementing distance learning. Over 40% surveyed are not comfortable returning to school until a vaccine is developed. How do we do this with drastically reduced budgets when new costs keep rising?

The 31 superintendents in Santa Clara County have been working collaboratively with our county Superintendent of Schools and with the Santa Clara County Public Health Department to develop contingency plans to help prepare for a range of circumstances schools may face this coming fall.

We have to prepare for students who will not return to normal school, we have to prepare for the possibility of some schools having to close for quarantine purposes for 14 days and we also have to prepare for a second bell curve, which may require all schools to shut down for a period of time.

Districts that are K-8 or K-12 have more issues to solve than high school districts. It may be easier to keep cohorts of students together in elementary and, therefore, have more in-person instruction. At the middle school and high school levels, it is impossible to keep cohorts of 12 together. How does a school keep 300, 1,000 or 3,000 students six feet apart?

Providing confidence to all of our stakeholders, we will need to meet safe social distancing requirements, schools will need to implement smaller class sizes in order to accommodate 6 feet apart, master schedules will need to be adjusted and increased sanitization of school facilities are all part of the equation for the new normal. Once again, significant cost increases at a time of proposed state budget reductions to education.

Educators are amazing leaders and can solve multiple problems that are thrown our way. This happens every day at school sites. Rushing to get people back to work by pushing to reopen schools for in-person instruction and then tying one arm behind our backs does not give us confidence to make the right decision and the safest to protect the health and safety of our staff, students and families.

COVID-19 has demonstrated one very important truism and that is teaching is not easy. Schools provide amazing resources to students and families that are critical to creating a safe, healthy and nurturing learning environment. We need a collective shout out to our legislative representatives that we cannot cut funding to education.

In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must increase funding in order to help jump start the economy and get more people back to work. You cannot drive a Volkswagen Beetle and expect it to perform like a Maserati. Our school systems produce exactly what they are designed to produce. It is time to fully fund public education.

San José Spotlight columnist Chris Funk is the superintendent of the East Side Union High School District. His columns appear every third Monday of the month. Contact Chris at [email protected] or follow @chrisfunksupt on Twitter.

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