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After Using Stimulus Funds for Tech, Some Schools Looking to New Uses

Now that the Google Chromebooks, the personal protective equipment and other special items have been secured with federal funds, California’s K-12 schools stand to gain another $16 billion. It’s coming from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill that President Joe Biden signed in March.

Local school districts spent virtually all of the tens of millions of dollars they were due in federal COVID-19 relief last year, using it to fulfill needs they had never seen before. And there’s lots more to come.

Now that the Google Chromebooks, the personal protective equipment and other special items have been secured with federal funds, California’s K-12 schools stand to gain another $16 billion. It’s coming from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus law that President Joe Biden signed in March.

This time, the money can be used for more than hardware and plugging budget holes. Some of it is intended to make up for students’ pandemic learning loss.

Sacramento County Superintendent Dave Gordon said he hopes to see the new funds spent on summer programs, extended-year programs, mental health and social emotional support, and activities that are emotionally nourishing for students including band, the arts and drama.

“We won’t know how necessary those social and emotional supports will be until we see our young people and see and assess their state of mind,” Gordon said. “And it must be done in a way that’s sustained for our young people. Coming out of this is not going to be a quick fix for all of our kids.”

The first burst of new school money is expected sometime next month. The results may not be obvious right away.

California Department of Education officials said that spending plans can move slowly. Schools often need to obtain permits and approval from school boards. Some projects, like redoing entire HVAC systems during the pandemic, take longer than purchasing laptops for students.

Schools are doing everything they can to spend their funds, state education officials said.

“Extraordinary challenges during this pandemic have created immense needs for California students, and it’s clearer than ever that the billions in new resources provided to schools have been a lifeline for educators as they’ve worked to keep students safe and shift to new ways of learning,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.

Schools are preparing to spend the money as Biden’s stimulus plan continues to face scrutiny from Republicans who view it as excessive following the $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill former President Trump signed in March 2020.

California governments, businesses and residents were due to get a total of $272 billion in federal help last year, including $15 billion from a special coronavirus relief fund. All but $13 billion has been spent, according to the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. 

The Sacramento Bee checked with local school districts in Sacramento County, and most of the school districts said they spent the allotted 2020 money this way:

  • Sacramento City Unified was awarded and spent $35.3 million last year for various programs including food assistance, telework and administrative expenses.
  • Natomas Unified plans to spend all of its $9.9 million by June 30. The funds will be spent on services including day camps, technology, Wi-Fi service cost, virtual tutoring and COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.
  • San Juan Unified was allotted $21.14 million, according to federal documents. District officials said they spent the allocation mostly on technology such as Chromebooks.
  • Elk Grove Unified received and spent $35.2 million, some of which was spent on distance learning and to improve telework.
  • Folsom Cordova Unified was allotted $8.56 million and has spent nearly all of it. Smaller schools received funding as well.
School districts are set to receive money from Biden’s stimulus and have until late 2023 to spend it.

The Sacramento City Unified School District could receive about $147 million, according to estimates from the education nonprofit EdSource. Elk Grove Unified is expected to receive about $150 million.

Some local school representatives, including Stanislaus County Superintendent of Schools Scott Kuykendall, are asking lawmakers if it’s possible to extend spending deadlines. Kuykendall earlier this month told Rep. Josh Harder, D-Turlock, that he was concerned that some districts would either be forced to make budget decisions that perhaps aren’t the most responsible or effective, or send the money back.

Kuykendall told The Modesto Bee that in his talk with Harder, “I wanted to stress the point that it’s extremely difficult for districts to spend down these large sums of one-time dollars within a restrictive time frame. Because of their one-time nature, it’s nearly impossible from a sustainability perspective to add personnel for long-term solutions (i.e. additional counselors, teachers for smaller class sizes, or after-school programs).”

Jonathan Zachreson, a Roseville parent and founder of the Reopen California Schools Facebook group, says the previous stimulus money should have helped reopen schools across the state for in-person education much earlier.

“That failed in California,” he said. Now, Zachreson hopes future funds go directly to in-person education programs and activities for students.

“Anything else, like bonuses to staff not returning to in-person, is a misappropriation of funds and violates the social contract we have with education institutions,” Zachreson said.

©2021 The Sacramento Bee. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.