By Mala Batra | CEO, Aspire Public Schools
Our state leaders are seeking to address some of the ramifications of Covid-19. Recently, Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a $2.7 billion Covid response plan, which would help schools receive the rapid test kits we need to keep school doors open, communities safe and kids in school.
But what happens when kids can’t be in school? What happens when thousands of students test positive or have a risk of exposure and need to quarantine?
That’s when educators are backed into a corner: By following the state-mandated student quarantine requirements, California’s public schools are losing millions of dollars — money needed for the critical work of supporting our students, keeping our staff safe and rebuilding our school communities.
In California, when a student quarantines to protect the health and safety of their school community, that same student loses money for their education. Current state law requires schools to mark quarantined students absent, unless students sign up for independent study for the time off, and the district keeps track of their work. The Legislature agreed to hold school districts harmless for Covid absences this year, but that allowance was not extended to charter schools. Unless the law is changed, all public schools will be affected in the coming year.
When students are absent, the school doesn’t receive money for the student that day. At one of our schools, that means for a 10-day quarantine for an entire classroom, a school loses about $14,000 based on the school’s average daily attendance funding. While schools have the option of enrolling quarantined students in independent study, the process to do so is difficult — if not impossible — for families to navigate during a two-week period. Furthermore, students who receive special education services need to have an updated individualized education plan — a process that can take weeks to months — to participate in independent study. These complexities have led most public schools to mark quarantined students absent, resulting in millions of lost dollars for California students’ education.
This problem is reinforcing an issue that predated the pandemic and has been exacerbated by it: It’s disproportionately impacting students of color and those in low-income communities. Since our communities have higher infection rates than white and more affluent communities, they are more likely to need to quarantine and therefore have money taken away from their education.
At Aspire Public Schools, a charter school network with 36 schools serving over 15,000 students across the state of California, we’ve known from very early on in this pandemic that our students and their families were among the most likely to bear the brunt of this disease and its devastating impacts. More than 85% of Aspire’s scholars are Black or Latino and live in communities that are among the hardest hit across our state.
At face value, the financial implications of this law may seem like a small, even logical consequence. But it adds up. In the first few months of this school year, the delta variant wreaked havoc on our communities despite our best efforts to institute policies that would protect our students and teammates. As a result, during this time period, Aspire saw the compounding impacts of this law cost our schools $1.2 million dollars. With omicron now surging in our communities, our schools — and consequently our students — are losing even more.
Reductions in funding force schools to make devastating decisions like eliminating much-needed programming or staff — both of which would have devastating impacts on students and teachers. Educators are going above and beyond every day to support students, all while holding their own feelings of exhaustion and anxiety. We cannot keep expecting them to do more with less.
California schools are steadfastly committed to both prioritizing student learning and protecting student health. As part of protecting our community from Covid-19, we enforce quarantine and isolation protocols as necessary. As rapid tests hopefully become more readily available, we are eager to pilot “test-to-stay” programs as a means to keep more students in our classrooms. But should that enforcement really be costing our students so dearly?
With unpredictable variables, such as the omicron variant, being introduced to our landscape daily, we must ensure there aren’t financial consequences that force schools to make impossible choices between safety and learning.
There should be zero cost — to schools, and most importantly to our students — for a medically responsible and necessary quarantine. Our state leaders can and must develop a solution that allows schools to follow state-mandated quarantine requirements without losing critical funding. This pandemic has already cost our students far too much. It is our collective responsibility to lighten that burden and clear a path for healing.
Mala Batra is CEO of Aspire Public Schools, California’s largest charter school network serving more than 15,000 students in the Bay Area, Central Valley and Los Angeles.