Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

With a slew of incoming federal and state funds, Humboldt’s school districts will soon have money coming at ‘em from all sides, and with it districts will continue to pursue progress — whether it be by officially breaking from distance learning, instituting learning loss programs or further addressing COVID-related equity gaps. Aside from districts’ hopes and dreams for them, though, the funds themselves (particularly those from California) come with some uncertainty.

At the end of December, Governor Gavin Newsom unveiled his Safe Schools for All plan, a $2 billion, yet-to-be approved proposal encouraging elementary schools to reopen. Claiming that “the right precautions can effectively stop the spread of COVID-19 in schools — particularly in elementary grades,” Newsom’s administration maintains that in-person instruction is important to both the academic and social-emotional wellbeing of students. By promising funding of $450 to $700 per student to schools that reopen, Newsom hopes to help grades K-6 return to the classroom this spring, with grades K-2 returning under the plan as soon as February. The plan coincides with the projected time vaccines will likely be available to childcare and education workers in California.

Only schools located in counties with an average daily infection rate below 25 cases per 100,000 are eligible to partake in the program (at the moment, Humboldt falls within that margin at a daily infection rate of 18.3), and to participate, schools must submit a reopening plan for approval to state and local health authorities by February 1 (a later submission would result in lower funding allocations).

“If I have $450 to $700 per student, but each test costs me $50, where’s the rest of that going to come from? Where’s the infrastructure for administering the test to staff and students?”
— Alyse Nichols, Trinidad Union School District superintendent

A couple of local superintendents contacted for this article didn’t want to comment on the Safe Schools for All plan because the information they had was only preliminary, and they felt too unsure of the yet-to-be approved legislation to discuss it. As the $2 billion proposal awaits approval (it’s a part of California’s 2021-2022 budget, but Newsom will seek early action by the legislature for this specific piece of the budget so it can get started ASAP), local elementary superintendents are unaware of certain details and whether the plan is logical for Humboldt’s schools at all.

For instance, participation in Safe Schools for All requires weekly testing of staff and students in counties with an average daily positive infection rate above 14 per 100,000. Some superintendents say weekly testing is likely not feasible. Furthermore, under the plan, districts would be able to purchase tests at one-third the market rate from Valencia Branch Laboratory, a state-run testing lab, but elementary school administrators aren’t sure it would be affordable, despite the extra cash.

Trinidad Union School District Superintendent Alyse Nichols said she’d like to participate, but has hesitations about the testing requirement. “I don’t know how much it’s going to cost me to run a test. So if I have $450 to $700 per student, but each test costs me $50, where’s the rest of that going to come from? Where’s the infrastructure for administering the test to staff and students?”

Nichols also wonders whether it’s feasible to depend on the state for PPE — another promise of Safe Schools for All — remembering that Trinidad Union School District was set to receive PPE from the state at the beginning of the school year. “It trickled in through October, but it still wouldn’t [have been] enough if we had our students back on campus,” Nichols said.

Though Newsom’s plan would allow for Trinidad to reopen in the purple — provided Humboldt stays below an infection rate of 25 per 100,000 — Nichols said that the district won’t open under current conditions, and will opt out of Safe Schools for All if local infection rates don’t send Humbodlt back into the orange (moderate) or yellow (minimal) tier. The staff is “excited to get kids back in the classrooms, but we just really want to do it safely,” Nichols said. Beyond inviting about 15 students in need of extra support to campus while Humboldt wasn’t in the purple tier, Trinidad hasn’t reopened their campus since COVID arrived.

In Fortuna, the elementary school district has been offering in-person instruction since early October — a decision that was driven by opinions provided by the majority of families and employees who responded to district surveys about modalities. Superintendent Jeff Northern told the Outpost in an email that he hopes to participate in Safe Schools for All, which would allow the district to continue offerings initially made possible by CARES Act aid. With those funds, they extended the full-time equivalent of English Learners and Intervention teachers, were able to pay some staff extra hours, upgraded technology and secured licenses for online teacher seminars. But Northern expressed similar skepticism about the feasibility of testing students and staff weekly, describing the undertaking as “completely overwhelming and likely not possible.”

“I am hopeful the state will resolve those questions and eventually streamline the process so that educators will have access to the funding that includes more reasonable expectations and/or requirements,” he wrote.

The Safe Schools for All plan has received pushback from other California superintendents. Seven superintendents of California’s largest districts co-authored a letter to Newsom, which said that the plan “does not address the disproportionate impact the virus is having on low-income communities of color.”

Newsom’s hopes to fund reopening fits nicely with the stimulus plan President Joe Biden announced last week, which would, if approved, direct 130 billion toward K-12 schools. These relief funds won’t be contingent on reopening, but Biden has expressed intentions to assist in safely reopening most American schools during his first 100 days in office.

Right now, all that’s guaranteed to districts is federal relief funding from the stimulus package that passed in late December, which included 54 billion in aid for K-12 schools (the CARES Act distributed 13.2 billion).

We reached out to several superintendents to ask how these funds will be spent in contrast to CARES Act funding, but few responded, mostly saying that it’s too early to tell.

Humboldt County Office of Education Superintendent Chris Hartley told the Outpost in an email that most districts continue to face needs in distance learning, but are looking onward toward reopening and addressing learning loss. “General areas of need for most our districts are around increasing technology access for students and families that are in geographical areas of limited internet availability (including hardware/software), student meals, continued COVID-19 related safety equipment, potential facility upgrades related to HVAC and/or ventilation systems, looking boost to after school and possible summer remediation programs, staffing and professional development,” Hartley said.

““We’ll definitely be using some of that money to add opportunities for kids, whatever that could be — whether it’s tutorial, or whether it’s actually more sections so we can have more courses offered to help kids catch up.”
— Roger Macdonald, Northern Humboldt Union High School District superintendent

A couple superintendents reached for this story said that the federal stimulus funding will be spent similarly to how CARES funding was spent.

“The funds will assist us to maintain the quality of services we have been offering while attempting to address aspects associated with potential learning loss,” Heidi Moore-Guynup, McKinleyville Unified School District superintendent said in an email in regard to incoming federal relief aid. Their district, which has stuck to distance learning so far, is looking at a summer school opportunity, Moore-Guynup said, which would address learning loss.

At the Northern Humboldt Union High School District, CARES funds bought technology, internet devices, PPE, air purification systems and on-site intervention for students in need of in-person support during distance learning. And with the new semester, they’ve launched a credit-recovery class for students who have fallen behind during COVID, which was also paid for in part with CARES funds.

“That was the gist of it: What did we need for distance learning, and what do we need to do to prepare for having our kids come back on campus,” Superintendent Roger Macdonald told the Outpost.

With more funds to come, Macdonald’s assessment of how new money might be spent reflects progression of COVID in education. With distance learning equipment now accounted for, the focus continues to be on what the district needs for returning to campus (such as hand washing stations or more PPE, Macdonald explained). But in addition to that, the district will also use “a big chunk” to further address the impacts of distance learning, by instituting programs similar to the one NoHum introduced earlier this month.

“As we look at the grades, if we see that students have fallen way behind, we may need to use some of that money to hire more teachers or pay teachers to teach an extended day,” Macdonald said. “We’ll definitely be using some of that money to add opportunities for kids, whatever that could be — whether it’s tutorial, or whether it’s actually more sections so we can have more courses offered to help kids catch up.” Macdonald added that these are initial thoughts, and there are other directions the funds might go as well.

Humboldt’s, California’s and the nation’s infection rates are far higher now than they were at the beginning of the school year, but a lot has changed since then. Most monumental is vaccinations. Education and childcare workers are in line to be vaccinated during phase 1B, which is projected to happen early- to mid-February. Many districts have addressed logistical setbacks to reopening by updating outdated filtration and ventilation systems.  

At the NoHum board meeting this month, trustees voted to move forward with reopening schools five or six weeks after staff have had the opportunity to get their first dose of vaccine, with the health department’s approval. At the meeting, Macdonald noted that whether the district can reopen will depend on the county’s infection rates at that time. In their company is the Eureka City School District, which earlier this month also passed a motion to reopen once staff have been vaccinated, on an estimated date of February 22.

At the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year, only 10 schools opened with in-person instructional models. Now there are 55 schools in Humboldt offering either in-person or hybrid instruction, according to this spreadsheet, which is regularly updated by the Humboldt County Office of Education. With the help of federal and (maybe) state funding, more are planning to follow.