Funk: Is Sacramento offering an incentive or bribe to reopen schools?
A San Jose student is pictured during a distance learning class in this file photo.

Gov. Gavin Newson and the Legislature on March 1 struck a deal to accelerate the reopening of schools.

The deal includes $2 billion in incentives to schools if we open at least one grade level in high school and provide in-person support for students most impacted by the pandemic. These include foster youth, homeless, English language learners and students who are disengaged.

The definition of incentive is something that motivates or drives one to do something or behave in a certain way. A bribe is to persuade (someone) to act in one’s favor, by a gift of money or other inducement. For East Side Union High School District, this incentive from the governor and Legislature is worth approximately $7.9 million in extra one-time money. That’s certainly a lot money to walk away from.

The challenge we face is that the governor has the power to shut down schools and close businesses with his power of executive order, but he refuses to use his power to reopen schools. Instead, he and the Legislature entice school districts by providing financial incentives to reopen.

School employees are essential workers and, as defined by California Government Code section 3100-3109, we, therefore, fall under Disaster Service Workers. In addition, as public employees, we took the California Constitution Oath or Affirmation of Allegiance to support our state during a state emergency or natural disaster.

We have had the good fortune to remain in paid status, keep our health benefits, maintain a roof over our heads and provide food to our families.  As a school district, we have allowed all employees who are able to complete their work from home to stay at home, but not all school employees have that opportunity. Many have been coming to work since last April albeit on a reduced work schedule, but performing their duties none the less.

By providing a $2 billion incentive to districts and not making the return to school mandatory, the governor and Legislature has put the onus on the 1,100 school districts with each Board of Education and each bargaining unit to negotiate their way back to opening schools. This was a complete missed opportunity from our leaders in Sacramento.

I have preached a measured response to this pandemic. We have prioritized the health and safety of our staff, students and families because East Side has had four of the highest affected ZIP codes with COVID-19 positivity rates. Being a high school district, reopening is much more challenging than opening K-8 schools; therefore, our approach has got to be more measured.

With that said, as we are approaching one year of distance learning and dealing with this virus, we know that with layered mitigations in place and with vaccines widely accessible to our employees, it is time for a phased approach to in-person learning, which will help keep all safe. That is exactly what East Side Union High School District’s reopening plan has in place.

I agree with Newson that a phased-in approach allows schools to “dip their toes in the water” and build confidence to eventually return to school. Our goal is to build confidence this spring which leads to more in-person instruction during summer school and sets us up for a full return to school in the fall.

I’m extremely grateful that the federal government and the state of California have provided extra resources to support school districts to address the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare our schools to return for in-person instruction.

With these financial resources, ESUHSD has been able to purchase N95 masks for all staff. We have three layered, disposable masks for students and anyone else who comes onto our campus without a mask. We have face shields for anyone who would like to wear a face shield. We have clear partitions for teacher work space and student desks. We have enough for 1,000 per school and will order more if necessary. We have an ongoing supply of hand sanitizer for every classroom. We have upgraded the filters used in our HVAC system to the highest quality available. We have every layered mitigation in place to help keep everyone safe and healthy.

I’m also extremely thankful to the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, in conjunction with the Santa Clara County Office of Education, for providing vaccine appointments to all ESUHSD employees who want one. That’s simply a game changer. Widely accessible vaccines to our employees has always been part of our framework for a phased-in approach to reopening our schools.

I’ve preached in this column over the course of two years that our education funding is broken and needs to be transformed so that California, as the fifth largest economy in the world, prioritizes our education system and makes it the best-funded system in the United States.

Let me be clear, I am genuinely grateful for any new funding to schools, but ESUHSD can meet the requirements of AB/SB 86 without the $2 billion incentive to reopen schools. We simply need stronger leadership from Sacramento. Be bold and transparent with expectations. You have that power with executive order.

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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