Originally published Dec. 7, 2021 in the Orange County Register.

By Roxana Kopetman

Christmas came early this year for Orange County’s school districts, in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars from state and federal COVID-19 relief funds.

The money will buy things as diverse as new air filtration systems, computers, WiFi hot spots, classroom projectors and, of course, lots of face masks. It also will pay for people to help students: more teachers, counselors, aides, special education experts and campus nurses, with a special emphasis on addressing the mental health needs of students. Depending on the district, the money also will be used for improvements in gyms and other facilities.

Students at Villa Park Elementary School in Villa Park attend their Sports for Learning physical education class under the shade shelters on the school’s quad on Friday, December 3, 2021. The shelters were built in the spring of 2020 and paid for through fundraisers by Villa Park Elementary parents. Similar shelters are planned for every school in the Orange Unified School District. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The California Department of Education is administering $33.8 billion in education funding from state and federal sources, but each district decides how that money is to be spent.

Overall, COVID relief represents an unprecedented financial windfall for schools.

“This is my 33rd year in education. I’ve never seen allocations to support education of this magnitude,” said Dave Rivera, assistant superintendent of business services in the Orange Unified School District.

Stuff vs. people

In Santa Ana Unified, the county’s second largest district, COVID-relief from state and federal sources adds up to $308 million, said district spokesman Fermin Leal. In the 21-22 fiscal year, the new monies account for 22.5% of the district’s total budget, he said.

Like other school boards across the county, Orange Unified and Santa Ana Unified trustees recently approved spending plans for the third round of money received under the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, the American Rescue Plan Act funding known as ESSER III.

The rules on how that money is spent offer districts flexibility. In addition to addressing the academic, emotional and health needs brought on by the pandemic, some of the money can be spent on issues that existed pre-pandemic but were simply worsened by the outbreak and the lockdown that came with it.

That can take many forms. While renovations of ventilation systems and upgraded gymnasiums represent acceptable uses of COVID-relief money, a minimum of 20% of the latest round of funding must be spent on helping students make up for lost instruction time over the past two years.

In Orange County, common themes include more money for after school and summer programs, hiring teachers and other staff, and purchasing items that make for a healthier environment, such as shade shelters that allow students to spend more time outdoors.

Still, specific spending plans vary from district to district.

In Santa Ana Unified, for example, the bulk of the latest $134 million pot was aimed at helping students make up lost instruction time. The district is doing that by hiring more people, increasing training for teachers and staff, extending tutoring and summer programs and other support services. The district also is bringing on “instructional coaches” to help teachers and others get the most out of the time they spend with students.

Leal, the district spokesman, said the extra staff and teacher coaching are temporary.

“The thinking was we needed that extra support to help students recover from a steep learning loss because students were remote for more than a year,” Leal said.

“We want to provide as much academic and social emotional support as we can for students who have been away from in-person instruction.”

In neighboring Garden Grove Unified, administrators chose to put $71 million of the $111 million it received in its latest COVID-relief funding into facilities maintenance. Projects include expanding or building new spaces for outdoor instruction – which may help reduce the risk of virus transmission – along with things like classroom projectors, outdoor security cameras, athletic facility upgrades, portable classrooms, shade structures, playground equipment and heating and air conditioning projects..

Some of Garden Grove Unified’s plans didn’t sit well with the teachers’ union and a number of educators who spoke at a recent school board meeting.

“None of these Band-aids address the devastating emotional and mental toll the pandemic has taken on our students and teachers,” Sarah Held, a first grade teacher at Garden Park Elementary, told the Garden Grove Unified school board.

“We need to use this ESSER funds money as it was intended.”

Kelly Nolan, president of the Garden Grove Education Association, also suggested the board take another look at how that money will be spent. In a recent interview, she repeated the teachers’ recommendation for the district to flip its priorities, giving higher priority to human resources, even if temporary, rather than to facilities.

“We need extra teachers and aides in the classroom, with the understanding we would hire this many teachers for maybe one or two years to help with the situation we are currently in,” Nolan said.

Garden Grove Unified is receiving $260 million in one-time spending. Spokeswoman Abby Broyles said the district already offers “some of the lowest (teacher-student ratio) class size in the county and state,” and is planning to use some money on making class sizes even smaller.

She also addressed criticism that the district was using COVID money to remake sports facilities.

“There have been a number of false rumors circulating about ESSER funds,” Broyles wrote in an e-mail. “ESSER funds allocated to facility upgrades account for 26.79% of all one-time expenditures, with only 3% going to athletic upgrades.”

Garden Grove Unified, she said, has used some COVID-relief money to expand learning opportunities, boost teacher pay and offer added work hours. Other spending has resulted in more student devices and hotspots, new campus shade structures, and upgraded air conditioning units, among other things.

Orange County’s largest district, Capistrano Unified, has focused on reducing class sizes, said spokesman Ryan Burris.

“For us, the opportunity to use the money to create more classes with fewer students was the best way to provide individual support for each student,” Burris said.

With 63 schools, he said, the district’s pandemic relief money didn’t stretch far enough to work on facilities. Of its most recent $35.2 million allocation, Capistrano Unified is spending $28.2 million on strategies for continuous and safe learning, including maintaining lower student per teacher ratios in the classroom. The rest is being spent on helping students make up for lost instruction time.

Another large district, Anaheim Union High School District, received $64.5 million in the most recent round of relief money. One chunk of that, $51.6 million, will include spending to improve indoor air quality and upgrade or add outdoor learning areas. Another slice, $5.6 million, is being spent on unspecified “strategies and protocols to ensure operations of school facilities to maintain the health and safety of students, educators and other staff as well as purchasing supplies to sanitize and clean facilities,” according to a school district report.

The rest, almost $13 million, is funding a range of items and new employees to address learning loss. That will include $3.2 million for an additional psychologist and speech language staff to help students with disabilities.

One-time only

While school officials welcome the backing, they note it isn’t permanent and some of the programs will end when the money runs out.

“The fact we’re getting an influx of one-time money is great,” said Rivera, of Orange Unified. “But what are the federal and state mindsets of making these ongoing funds? Because we know we have an ongoing problem.”

Of Orange Unified’s most recent $28 million allocation, $20 million is aimed at new programs and serving student needs, while $7.8 million will be spent on facilities. Some of the facility improvements have involved mixing COVID money with traditional support. Two examples: bathroom renovations that include touchless fixtures and new flooring and stalls set further apart, and gym renovations that involve new bleachers and new air conditioners.

“We look at the guidance for (the money) and see where we can easily justify this; the rest of it we’re going to backfill with something else,” Rivera said. “We’re leveraging Covid funds with those other funds.”

In addition to more people and measures to help students recover from learning loss and move past the trauma of the pandemic, Orange Unified’s investments include new canvas shade shelters and bottle filling stations as well as new lunch and picnic tables at every school.

Districts received varying amounts of relief money. In the latest round, Tustin Unified got $23 million, Irvine Unified received $18 million and Newport Mesa $27 million.

Districts have until Sept. 30, 2024 to spend the money.

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