San Diego Unified school buses spell out SOS – Save Our Schools. Photo courtesy of the district.

San Diego Unified School District officials joined local House members Thursday to urge the Senate to pass a bill to secure funding they say is necessary to reopen schools safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The school district and local elected officials said the the $3 trillion Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act’s passage would bolster efforts to obtain what they said are much-needed protective measures in order to begin in-person learning.

Though San Diego County schools were given the green light to reopen this week, its largest school district started the new school year online due to safety concerns regarding the virus.

SDUSD Superintendent Cindy Marten said the district has made efforts to ensure student access to remote learning capabilities and school meals, but its ultimate goal is to reopen all campuses for in-person learning.

However, she said more funding is needed in order to do so safely.

Marten said the district will need to purchase more personal protective equipment, increase cleaning and daily health checks, and make safety modifications to numerous school buildings in order to address safety obstacles presented by the pandemic.

“2020 has not been an easy year by any means. We shifted to online learning in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. We distributed 58,000 devices and millions of meals,” Marten said. “School districts need to purchase PPE and need to modify schools to meet guidelines. We know many children will return to school with significant learning challenges. This is why we ask the Senate and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to approve the HEROES Act.”

Kisha Borden, president of the San Diego Education Association, the union representing the district’s teachers, said many of the resources needed for in-person learning “require additional funding that our schools simply do not have and did not budget for.”

The House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act in May, but it still requires Senate approval. The proposal allocates $58 billion for kindergarten through 12th grade education. The counter-proposal HEALS Act would earmark $70 billion for schools, though critics say much of the funding will go to schools that commit to physically reopening.

Reps. Susan Davis, Scott Peters and Juan Vargas were among those calling for the bill’s passage with district officials on Thursday.

“We have the best students. We have the best teachers here in California. They want to teach and these kids want to learn, but they need a safe environment,” Vargas, D-San Diego, said.

San Diego Unified is slated to provide a limited capacity in-person program for disadvantaged and high-needs elementary students starting later this month, but it’s uncertain whether or when in-person reopening would expand past that initial phase.

Marten said that in addition to physical reopening costs, funding will also be needed to continue remote learning into the foreseeable future, including for additional laptops and wi-fi hotspots.

— City News Service and staff report

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