Ruiz checks in on millions delivered to local schools from COVID-19 relief bill
“Are you Joe Biden?” a bewildered Jackson Elementary student asked, eyes wide, as a politician in an American flag mask, black tie and perfectly polished black shoes toured her school Wednesday, a posse of staffers, school employees and camera crews behind him.
"No, I'm not," said U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, chuckling.
Ruiz, D-Palm Desert, was visiting the school in Indio to check up on howfunds from the $1.9 billion American Rescue Plan, one of President Biden’s early pieces of legislation that Ruiz supported, are being spent in his district.
Desert Sands Unified School District Superintendent Scott Bailey, Assistant Superintendent of Education Services Kelly-May Vollmar and Jackson Elementary Principal Jose Montaño accompanied the congressman on his tour. Montaño didmuch of the talking to explain how the school is utilizing federal funds to improve technology and mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Under the ARP, $122 billion is slated to help public schools reopen quickly and safely. Ruiz’s district, CA-36, was allotted $250 million, including more than $55 million to be administered by Desert Sands Unified.
Palm Springs Unified will administer more than $75 million in ARP relief funds, and Coachella Valley Unified will administer more than $72 million, according to data from the California Department of Education.
The fund is also known as the ARP Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER III, because two previous school COVID-19 relief bills were passed in 2020 during the Trump Administration. Those were smaller, amounting to $67 billion nationally.
Between the first two rounds of ESSER funding, Desert Sands Unified was awarded about $31 million, according to Jordan Aquino, assistant superintendent of business services.
“I wanted to come and to see firsthand the application of President Biden's American Rescue Plan that I voted for, to see how it's being put to use in the classroom to help protect our kids,” Ruiz said.
“There is a significant amount of money that is going toward ensuring that we can get our kids back into school responsibly and safely, and that they can stay in school,” Ruiz told The Desert Sun.
So far, Desert Sands Unified has received just over $4 million of ESSER III funds — a fraction of the $55 million it anticipates receiving. The district is still in the process of spending and receiving previous ESSER funding, which will expire in 2022.
ESSER III funds, which continue to be distributed and expire in 2024, are earmarked to address the impacts of COVID-19 on pre-K through 12 education, including school site investments to improve air ventilation and circulation, glass shields to protect teachers and students from airborne particles and hand-washing and sanitizing stations near playgrounds at classroom entrances.
Montaño showed Ruiz multiple examples of each of these items at Jackson Elementary, which the district said were purchased with ESSER III funds.
Ruiz, a physician who also has a master's of public health degree from Harvard University, said: “The measures and the public health hygiene that our children are learning and that are becoming habits like washing hands frequently, keeping social distance or even using hand sanitizers and wearing masks will have long term positive effects because these are the same types of hygiene to prevent from getting sick from the cold or the flu.”
In terms of the fund’s provisions for technology, Jackson Elementary now has a large format LCD display — like a giant TV screen — in most if not all classrooms.
“The LCD has been an awesome tool,” kindergarten and dual-language immersion teacher Rosa Cervantes said. “The kids love it and interact with it all the time.”
Ruiz sat in front of one such screen positioned in the multipurpose room to address about 20 Jackson Elementary staff members on a conference video call, their faces like Hollywood Squares on the big screen.
He acknowledged that many teachers feel the “stress of addressing anti-vaxx community members.” Parents protesting school mask mandates have disrupted each of the previous two Desert Sands Unified board meetings.
“The vast majority of the community supports you and the preventions you take,” he assured them.
Ruiz noted that ESSER III funds are being used to hire counselors to focus on mental health and wellbeing for both students and teachers. “The $250 million (divided between schools in the valley) are going to provide more personnel, more nurses and more mental health specialists, recognizing that there’s a lot of anxiety that our children have faced.”
Aquino confirmed that the district plans to use ESSER III funds on such staffing.
“The district has hired a number of additional staff, including counselors, mental health therapists and nursing staff and anticipates using ESSER III funds in addition to other federal relief funding to pay for these services,” he said via email.
Whether the ESSER III funds are being used to effectively mitigate the spread of COVID-19 remains to be seen.
As of Wednesday, Desert Sands Unified reports 84 active COVID-19 cases and 65 current quarantines. Palm Springs Unified lists 33 student cases and six among staff, and Coachella Valley counts 27 student cases and six among staff.