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No financial relief for San Diego County schools hit by January’s COVID surge

Some school leaders worry that last month’s surge in COVID-19 infections that prompted numerous student absences will cost districts millions of dollars in state funding, with no plans for relief.

In January schools saw huge increases in the number of absent students and staff, many who were sick with COVID or in quarantine because they had been exposed to somebody with COVID.

Several districts said 20 percent or more of their students were absent on any given day. Yet, despite significant staffing shortages, schools in San Diego County overwhelmingly managed to avoid closures.

That may cost them. Because state school funding is distributed through a formula that is based on student attendance, schools are expecting significant financial losses from January.

According to state rules, the only way schools could recoup funding lost due to last month’s absences was if they had required the absent students to complete independent study work at home.

Some school leaders are not happy about it.

David Feliciano, superintendent of La Mesa-Spring Valley School District, which has about 11,000 students, said it seems counter to common sense.

“The messaging is crazy, because we’re out here saying that COVID is a serious thing … but, oh, hey, if your kid’s sick with COVID, here’s all your schoolwork to do at home,” he said. “We never give sick kids homework, because they’re sick.”

Before COVID, La Mesa-Spring Valley’s average student attendance rate was about 96 percent. During COVID it dropped to about 90 percent. Then in January, it fell to 81 percent, and some days it hit 78 percent, Feliciano said.

The increased absences in January will cost La Mesa-Spring Valley about $1.2 million, he said; for the year it could lose $6.7 million due to attendance.

“That’s terrifying. That would be something that would take us years and years to recover from, if the state didn’t find a way to make up that difference,” Feliciano said.

Officials at Carlsbad Unified said the school funding formula should be adjusted to accommodate Omicron’s surge.

“We hope the state will recognize that every district lost attendance when students did what they were supposed to during the Omicron surge and stayed home while they were infectious,” said Eric Dill, assistant superintendent at Carlsbad Unified School District.

Deputy County Superintendent Michael Simonson suggested that the state could use a different month, instead of January, or it could simply exclude January from the school year when calculating attendance funding.

“I do believe there needs to be some fix for the current year,” Simonson said.

Last year the state protected schools from losing funding by holding them harmless despite lower attendance and school closures.

But this school year, the state eliminated that protection and stressed the importance of schools serving students in person. Schools were to help students recover from the emotional and academic impacts of COVID and school closures, officials said.

“State law is clear: in order to get state funding, public schools must provide in-person instruction,” said Maria Clayton, spokesperson for the California Department of Education, in an email.

When asked to comment on the funding issue due to recent absences, education department officials did not indicate they would provide additional financial relief. Schools could recoup funding if they temporarily closed due to a COVID staffing shortage, according to state rules.