A second round COVID-19 relief funds will leave some Calaveras County schools high and dry.
The $57 billion in federal K-12 funding from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act, signed into law on Dec. 27, is more than four times the amount earmarked for schools by the initial COVID-19 relief CARES Act in March. Calaveras Unified School District (CUSD), the largest school district in the county, is estimated to receive nearly $3 million this time around, compared to the $2 million in federal aid it received last year.
However, other districts are expected to receive substantially less. Mark Twain Union Elementary School District’s federal aid will likely remain at the roughly the half-a-million dollars it was allotted in March, while non-classroom-based charter schools will receive no additional funding.
For Mountain Oaks School, a non-classroom-based charter school that represents roughly 10% of the county’s total K-12 student population between its enrollment and an ample waitlist, the lack of growth funding could not have come at a worse time.
The homeschooling sector has been growing for years, according to Mountain Oaks School Administrator Bill Redford, but the uncertainty of pandemic-time education has sent droves of students looking for a more reliable alternative.
In a typical year, the waitlist at Mountain Oaks hosts about 100 prospective students. In 2020, that number nearly tripled, and the school of approximately 380 students and 29 teachers took on 70 new students from its waitlist. It was only after this increase in enrollment that the state announced its COVID-19 relief budget would not be funding growth in non-classroom-based charter schools, Redford said, though federal relief funds did provide $25,000 to Mountain Oaks in 2020.
“Once we enrolled the students that we enrolled, we had made a commitment to educate those kids, whether we got funding or not,” Redford said.
One factor that has been particularly detrimental to non-classroom-based charter schools is the state’s “hold harmless” COVID-19 provision, which essentially freezes attendance-based funding at what it was prior to the pandemic.
This policy has been essential to most public schools in Calaveras County, which have experienced a sharp decline in attendance, according to county Superintendent of Schools Scott Nanik. Last year, county schools lost about 280 students. As of early December, between 45 and 100 of those students were unaccounted for, Nanik stated last month. A large portion of his time is now spent tracking down these “missing” students to ensure they are receiving an education.
“It’s a big hole in the support model in this environment,” Nanik said. “We would have been able to support them better if there had been funding for Mountain Oaks.”
Many non-classroom-based charter schools throughout California have filed lawsuits against the state due to this perceived oversight, though Mountain Oaks is not one of them.
“From the beginning, I empathized with site-based schools and felt ‘hold harmless’ should be in place,” Redford said, though he was surprised when additional funding was denied to a rapidly growing sector of education.
Nonetheless, Redford said Mountain Oaks will “weather this storm” with its reserve funds.
“It’s certainly not what you really want to spend your reserve on, but we’re going to be OK,” he said.
Both Redford and Nanik hope that 2021 sees some students return to their classroom-based schools, lessening the burden on Mountain Oaks and other charter schools, while boosting enrollment at county schools that may not be held harmless forever.
“(The state is) holding harmless for this year, but it could affect funding levels this next year or the year after,” Nanik said.
Beyond federal relief funds, additional funding remains uncertain. Nanik said the county could miss out on about $450 per student in state relief dollars due to “stringent” COVID-19 testing requirements needed to access those funds.
Nanik said the state’s proposal to test weekly every school staff member and student countywide would require 6,000 tests performed each week, a task which might not be feasible.
“We don’t know if we’re going to accept that money or not,” Nanik said. “The money and the governor’s proposal are more geared towards schools that are not open at all.”
Nanik said the greatest need for funding in county schools right now is the provision of an efficient hybrid learning environment to all students, regardless of their home address.
“Connectivity remains the biggest challenge in the county,” he said.