What will Inland Empire’s 2020-21 public school year look like?

On Tuesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom caught many by surprise when he suggested public schools might start the next school year as early as July.

But Inland superintendents were already making plans for what the 2020-21 school year could look like, based on the state of the coronavirus pandemic at the time.

A sign in front of Dollahan Elementary School in Rialto on Wednesday, April 29, 2020, says the school will be closed until further notice. (Photo by Eric Vilchis, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Schools might stick with distance learning, in which most students are taught through online instruction. They might all come back to school and be taught as they were before the pandemic. Or there might be a hybrid of the two.

“You have to have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C,” said Martinrex Kedziora, superintendent of Moreno Valley Unified School District.

Moreno Valley Unified’s hybrid plan, Kedziora said, might include keeping students with respiratory problems or other health risks at home. Some students at lower risk would come to school each day, learn in less densely packed classrooms, and get the rest of their instruction online, as they are now. There could be split shifts, with morning and afternoon classes, as many kindergarten classes work.

Meanwhile, at the San Bernardino City Unified School District, officials are hunkering down for eight more months of online learning.

“Our approach is to over-prepare, as if this closure will last until December,” district spokeswoman Linda Bardere wrote in an email.

But, Ontario-Montclair School District staff is “very hopeful” that they’ll be able to reopen Aug. 6 — its regularly scheduled start date — for face-to-face learning, according to spokeswoman Jana Dupree.

Early start not so easy

Crystal Hofmann, a teacher and activities director at Elsinore High School, works with teachers and students via Zoom to create a video set to the 1970s song, “Stuck in the Middle With You.” The video sought to encourage students and teachers alike that they are stuck in the campus-closure era together and will get through it together. (Photo courtesy of Crystal Hofmann)

Newsom’s declaration Tuesday that schools might reopen in July made it seem like school calendars are up to the governor. They’re not.

“It’s not that easy,” said Connie Verhulst, president of the Fontana Teachers Association.

Calendars are negotiated by teachers unions and school districts. Districts that unilaterally open early risk lawsuits.

“Our calendar is set for next year and actually for the year after that,” Verhulst said. “We actually start Aug. 1, as it is. if the school district were to push it to start in July, they’d have to take it to the union and negotiate.”

She’s skeptical that many teachers would agree to Newsom’s timetable.

“At this point, we’re nervous about starting Aug. 1,” Verhulst said. “I can’t imagine there’s a union in the state that would be willing to do that.”

She thinks Newsom has his heart in the right place, though.

“I get where he’s coming from. It was ‘let’s get them back as soon as we can,’ but there’s a lot more to it,” Velhust said. “I know that my members are concerned about safety issues. We actually have a task force to work with the district to look at safety issues before we open up.”

Right now, Fontana Unified School District teachers are focused on finishing this school year through distance learning.

“Next year is a lifetime away and too much to consider,” Velhust said.

Budget problems could arise

Tish Godsy, 52, uses two iPads and one lap top computer as she teaches her middle-school English class via computer from her empty classroom at Our Lady of the Assumption School in San Bernardino on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. (File photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

The uncertainty about the pandemic, and the cratering of California’s tourism-dependent economy, means further uncertainty for districts, which get nearly all their funding from the state.

“We anticipate some very difficult years ahead as the state struggles to provide support for public education with reduced revenue sources,” Dawn Lawrence, spokeswoman for San Jacinto Unified School District, wrote in an email.

Some districts, including Ontario-Montclair and Moreno Valley, are offering extra pay to essential workers. Moreno Valley Unified has also had to pay more for employee training outside regular work hours as employees juggle work and childcare responsibilities.

“There’s so many things you hadn’t thought of,” Kedziora said. “We’re delivering food to our families through our buses, so that takes additional resources and time you hadn’t thought of.”

And not every district or family was equally prepared for students to switch to online learning, which has meant additional unplanned expenses for many districts.

“There is a digital divide that we’re working to close,” Bardere wrote, adding the San Bernardino district bought 20,000 devices for students and ordered hot spots to give them Wi-Fi access.

A hybrid reopening would be expensive, with additional costs for masks, cleanser and air-conditioning.

“We have a moral obligation to protect their students and keep them healthy,” said Elliott Duchon, superintendent of the Jurupa Unified School District. “So there will certainly be expenses with that.”

Duchon has heard the state may not have a final budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, until August, and is “extremely concerned” about what it’ll look like.

“We’re calling it ‘tighten your belt until you scream,’” he said. “It’s not going to be easy.”

Ontario-Montclair officials have been creating different budget scenarios, so they can be ready for potential bad news from the state, according to Dupree.

In addition to state funding, money is available from the federal government, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Title I funding from the federal Department of Education.

“They don’t cover everything, but there are resources supporting what we’re doing,” Kedziora said.

Teacher layoffs unlikely

One thing that’s probably not going to happen in the 2020-21 school year, despite the possible budget shortfalls: teacher layoffs.

Depending on the school district, 70% or more of its budget is spent on salaries and benefits. And most of that goes to teachers. But under California state law, teachers have to be notified by March 15 if they may not have a job in the next school year. By the time most officials knew how bad the pandemic would get, that deadline had already passed.

The memory of the 2008 recession, when tens of thousands of California teachers were laid off, is still fresh for many administrators.

“How do you tell a young person, in their second or third year of teaching, who says ‘I did everything right, why is this happening’ that they’re getting cut?” Duchon said.

Instead, districts are planning on leaving vacant positions unfilled. But non-teacher employees are still fair game, as are other measures to cut costs.

“We hate laying people off; it’s a last-ditch effort,” Duchon said. “Somewhere something’s going to have to give, unless money comes in from somewhere.”

The Hemet Unified School District, which is “bracing for significant reductions” in next year’s budget, according to an email from spokeswoman Alexandrea Sponheim, is still hiring for difficult-to-fill positions like special education, math and science teachers. But the district may also leave some vacancies open, she wrote.

But with all the uncertainty about the coming school year, one thing is certain, according to Jurupa Valley’s Duchon:

“I am 99.99% sure that the first day of school next year will look unlike everything I’ve ever seen before.”

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