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Grand Jury Report finds Monterey County education response to COVID-19 was “commendable”

The Monterey County Civil Grand Jury

MONTEREY COUNTY, Calif. (KION-TV)--The Monterey County Civil Grand Jury completed its investigation of Monterey County's educational response to COVID-19.

They said that "Educators and classified staff in Monterey County are to be commended for their initiative and flexibility in meeting the challenges of COVID-19."

Due to the uncertainty of the pandemic that forced students and staff out of the classroom beginning in late March of 2020, when a national emergency was declared, the grand jury report said, "The MCOE Superintendent to the newest part-time classroom aide, county educational employees went beyond their job descriptions in meeting the needs of students and their families during the pandemic."

Using their annual budget of $179 million to provide resources to help 75,600 students and 11,000 staff members was no easy task.

MCOE is credited with creating the "Digital Equity Task Force" that saw donors help get MCOE students to access electronic devices and the internet.

In March 2020, 9,839 students were without electronic devices and 11,291 were without internet. According to the report, by the 2020/2021 school year, that number was reduced to 0%.

"This was accomplished by an extensive fundraising effort for technology, which raised $2,659,960 from 26 donors with the goal of $3,513,950," said the grand jury report. "Federal funding made raising the rest of the funds a moot point. The first $569,000 bought 1,300 devices."

Their COVID-19 planning began in December of 2019, and by January 2020, MCOE was prepared for the virus's impact. The report added that not only were the challenges of COVID-19 with in-person instruction but with the mental health of students, staff and parents.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that trauma in early life, like prolonged
social isolation, unpredictable routines, economic hardship, housing insecurity, and grief
over missed significant life events, can continue to impact some students’ long-term
psychological and physiological well-being throughout their lifetimes.

Mental health professionals have identified increases in anxiety, depression, PTSD symptoms,
suicidal ideation (thinking about or planning to take your own life), and substance
abuse. Between March and October of 2020, the number of mental-health related visits
to the emergency room increased by 24% for ages 5-11 and by 31% for ages 12-17
over 2019 numbers. The impacts of the switch to distance learning in March 2020 and
throughout the 2020-2021 school year will be felt for some time, particularly by students.

Monterey County County Civil Grand Jury

To help with these problems, educators went beyond their job descriptions to provide support and services to students and their families. Schools were used as food distribution centers, COVID-19 testing sites and vaccination clinics.

Schools invested in behavioral health support systems and made changes to help teachers transition to online learning in two weeks. Some larger schools gave clothing and housing, said the jury report.

"Teachers had to undertake extensive online training to learn new software, such as Google Classroom, Canvas, and Zoom," said the jury report. "Some teachers had to learn how to use new electronic devices. Professional development also included learning new teaching techniques for online instruction and about social-emotional learning (SEL), so that teachers could identify signs of needed support. To further support their students, 5,000 teachers voluntarily signed up for extra SEL training, which was offered by MCOE."

Two financial concerns that are persistent were pointed out—the end of federal funding and the drop in average daily attendance.

The deadline for the 2024-2025 school year is approaching to get more COVID-19 funding but it is not guaranteed to be given. That's in addition to the county-wide drop in ADA of 10% over the last year.

"Since ADA generates most of the revenue for school districts, the matter is of concern," the report said. "The combination of the end of the federal emergency funding with the drop in ADA while students still need behavioral intervention services and learning loss mitigation is problematic.

It is also recommended for schools in the county to do the following:

  • School districts maintain a minimum level of one behavioral support staff member at each school site until the 2025-2026 school year.
  • School districts maintain learning loss mitigation programs and extended learning opportunities until the 2025-2026 school year.
  • MCOE should continue to closely monitor district LCAPs and budgets for the impacts of ADA loss and the end of emergency federal funding.
  • MCOE is forward-thinking about its emergency plans.
  • MCOE should establish partnerships and internships with CSU Monterey Bay, MCBH, and industry partners to increase the number of mental health workers, teachers, substitutes, and bus drivers

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Ricardo Tovar

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