Reopening of Schools Proves No Easy Task

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(Sally Hogarty, Photographer)
Will playgrounds remain empty this fall (or sparsely used with disinfectant used between classes allowed outside to play on them) and empty parking lots continue to be the norm.

    The Orinda School District has been busily preparing for a wide variety of eventualities as it deals with an uncertain school year and an even more uncertain budget.
    “It’s daunting,” said Orinda Union School District Superintendent Carolyn Seaton. “If you didn’t keep getting up and working through it, you’d just want to curl up in a ball.”
    One of the many “things” to work through is the California State Department of Education’s new set of guidelines released June 8. The 62-page guidebook includes a number of recommendations for schools opening in the fall such as face coverings for all students and teachers, social distancing inside classrooms and the continued presence of distance learning.
    The guidelines do not include suggestions for when school districts should reopen. State Superintendent Tony Thurmond said a hybrid model combining distance learning with in-person classes could be a possible scenario. He also noted schools could potentially be shut down if another wave of COVID-19 cases happens in the fall.
    “There is so much to consider in order to start in-person classes again,” said Seaton. “We’ll be implementing safety processes such as limited class sizes, wearing masks and frequent hand washing to name a few. We’ll have to hire additional custodians and staff to keep up with the increased cleaning required and to monitor social distancing on the playground as well.”
    OUSD surveyed its 2,500 students regarding attending classes in the fall and 75.4 percent said they would be back. Six percent, including children who are immune compromised, said they would not be returning until a vaccine is developed and widely available.
    “In the governor’s proposed budget, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) is drastically cut, which translates to a reduction of 7.92 percent per pupil funding. If students don’t attend school, we don’t get paid,” said Seaton.
    According to Seaton, 81 percent of OUSD’s budget goes for salaries and benefits. Currently, district personnel are looking at $34 million in expenditures and only $32 million in revenue for the fiscal year ending 2020-21.
    “Based on the governor’s proposed budget, we’re $2.2 million roughly in the hole before we start,” said Seaton. “Even with the strong support and generosity of our local community, we don’t have enough. Given how much of our budget is for salaries that means cutting people’s jobs, their livelihood. That’s incredibly difficult to do.”
    Adding to the difficulty is the State Legislature’s Budget Act approved on June 15 that rejects the Governor’s cuts to LCFF. The governor and the legislature continue to negotiate with a final state budget expected by July 1. Additional revisions may take place in August and September.
    The District Budget Task Force decided to make its recommendation to the board on June 22 based on the Governor’s budget. These incorporated across the board cuts by departments including district office reductions; a partial hiring freeze that would affect two elementary teachers and one OIS math teacher; a temporary pay freeze and a reduction in instructional aide hours by 25 percent. The complete task force report can be found at www.orindaschools.org.
    “Everyone will be hurt and angry to some extent with our final budget. These are all great programs and wonderful staff. But to not makes cuts is irresponsible. We have to somehow live within our means, and it will only get worse if we kick this can down the road,” Seaton said.
    “There may be a silver lining that’s hard to see right now,” said Seaton. “But sometimes when forced to make drastic cuts, you find new ways to do things that actually work, or maybe in a very positive scenario, work better.”

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