(Photo by Alison Yin/EdSource)

The Legislature hurriedly approved emergency financial relief to help school districts cope with the costs of the coronavirus on Monday before adjourning for a month to comply with state and federal orders limiting gatherings to stem the spread of the contagion.

Legislators approved an initial $100 million for K-12 districts and child care centers to cover school cleaning expenses and adopted waivers that will ensure funding for school districts and state-funded child care during school closures. In a second bill, they approved spending up to $1 billion on emergency medical costs, including leasing two hospitals, to expand the capacity to respond to the pandemic.

Also on Monday, the chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, said he would shepherd legislation that would give districts flexibility to meet the state’s minimum instructional time requirements. That has been one of the unresolved issues for districts that have closed schools.

On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order that assured school districts would be funded during closures and waived the minimum state requirement for 175 instructional days each year. The order also set conditions, including providing school meals outside of a cafeteria setting, like a “grab-and-go”  process, that districts would have to satisfy to get the money.

O’Donnell’s bill, which has not been published, would apply to those schools that want to make up the academic days — even though a shorter year would be legal. The bill would not provide additional funding, however. It would allow districts to extend the school day and count the extra instructional minutes toward the annual minimum instructional time. School districts would likely have to negotiate the terms and possible extra pay with school employee unions.

The bill that the Legislature passed Monday before adjourning codifies what Newsom set out March 13 in his executive order. It says that districts will be funded for closures, based on enrollment figures they had before the outbreak of the coronavirus. And it also guarantees full funding to cover a possible drop-off in attendance if, when school resumes, parents keep children at home who suffer from asthma and other medical conditions. Education groups have sought to hold districts harmless for financial losses due to the coronavirus.

The bill also extends the period allowed for standardized testing for an additional 45 days. The $100 million to cover school cleaning also covers the purchase of protective gear, like masks.

On Tuesday, the Newsom administration was expected to provide a more detailed explanation of its expectations for funding during a school closure. Along with continuing to provide both breakfast and lunch, the order requires districts to offer “high quality education opportunities” through options like online learning, written take-home material and independent study “to the extent feasible.” And it says districts also should provide child care for low-income children and children of first responders and health-care workers “to the extent practicable.”

Some districts are not offering new assignments and planned to use the closures to train staff in how to use distance learning platforms and plan online lessons.

Since March 13, restrictions have tightened, however. The federal government is discouraging meetings of more than 10 people at one time, and seven Bay Area counties have essentially imposed a three-week lockdown for all residents to stay in their homes.

School officials are looking for answers. “What is feasible and practicable has changed and will continue to change, for sure,” said Iván Carrillo, legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators. “How do you operationalize what is expected under the new shelter-in-place requirements?”

Story originally published by EdSource.

John Fensterwald