Proposed budget cuts threaten safe opening of California schools, leaders say
State education leaders on Thursday said proposed budget cuts to education would threaten their ability to reopen safely next fall and that confronting the COVID-19 pandemic calls for more nurses, counselors, custodians and teachers.
The forum for these warnings was a video conference hosted by state Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. Also taking part in the event was Gil F. Chavez, a senior state health official, who said that the manner and timing of reopening for individual school systems would depend on local county health officials.
The live broadcast drew more than 13,500 viewers on Facebook alone, signaling broad interest and concern over cuts to education funding that work out to about 10%. Although Thurmond remains a solid political ally of Gov. Gavin Newsom, he nonetheless allowed the education establishment to take critical aim at the governor's proposed budget, which was released a week ago.
"I'm finding it very difficult to figure out how we're going to maintain the safety levels that we need to have," said Ben Valdepeña, president of California School Employees Assn., which represents more than 250,000 school support staff.
"I really don't know if the two custodians that work at the school where I work would be able to keep up with the demand of constantly sanitizing the school," said Valdepeña, a Yucaipa-area school custodian with 38 years of experience.
He also stressed the need for clear guidance: "I don't know what it takes to open up a school in this era of COVID-19."
The state health department and the education department are working on guidelines, which Thurmond said would be available in weeks or possibly days and also could roll out gradually. Chavez, deputy director of the state Center for Infectious Diseases, indicated that instructions are likely to include recommendations for wearing masks, practicing social distancing in classrooms, limiting the social and academic mixing of students and providing health screenings for students and employees.
He acknowledged the difficulty of requiring young children and disabled students to wear masks.
"We're sensitive to the notion that you can't require 100% of everybody to wear a mask," he said.
Leaders of the state's 1,000 school districts generally have appreciated Thurmond's supportive tone, but the substance of Thursday's message was less encouraging. The most unwelcome note, pertaining to funding, was no surprise. As matters stand, most school systems in the state can look forward to less money for the approaching school year, Thurmond said, a result of plummeting state tax revenue due to the pandemic-related economic shutdown.
"We know that this is hard and we know that the financial implications have made this even more difficult," Thurmond said.
He added: "We hear you loud and clear. ... We agree with you that we cannot ask schools to do more with less."
In California, about 90% of education funding is from the state, with about 10% from the federal government. Although the state budget contains funding "guarantees" for schools, they can fluctuate with the health of the economy, which affects how much tax revenue the state collects. The federal share helps pay for added academic help for the poor as well as partial funding for the extra costs of serving students with disabilities.