Newsom pushes California school reopening plan that could begin in February

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Evianna Van Santvoord, who is in kindergarten, does her schoolwork at home on March 18, 2020 in San Anselmo, Calif. | Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a $2 billion push Wednesday to reopen California elementary schools for the youngest students in February, offering incentives and testing to school districts that resume classroom instruction.

Most of California’s 6 million public school students have been learning remotely since the pandemic forced widespread closures in March. While a smattering of districts opened this fall when infection rates were lower, most kept campuses shut and stayed online, especially those in large metropolitan areas.

Newsom’s plan relies on carrots rather than sticks in trying to reopen elementary schools across California. The centerpiece is a $2 billion mid-year budget request that would channel money toward getting kids back in classrooms, with an emphasis on younger children who are in transitional kindergarten through second grade. Priority will be given to districts with large numbers of low-income students, foster youth or English learners — groups whose disadvantages have been exacerbated during distance learning.

The framework also seeks to ramp up testing at schools and to furnish educators with more protective equipment, including by distributing millions of surgical masks for free. Newsom’s plan would prioritize inoculating school staff through the spring; teachers and child care providers are expected to be next in line for vaccines after the current round devoted to health care workers and those in nursing homes.

The state will also launch a public database tracking transmissions in schools, an effort at transparency that follows increasing complaints that the state has provided little information on school opening status or infection rates among students.

While Newsom and lawmakers have come under immense pressure to reopen schools sooner, that has put them in direct opposition to influential teachers unions that argue classrooms remain unsafe for teachers. Unions have already opposed legislation to compel swifter reopenings, and the success of Newsom’s plan could hinge on the approval and cooperation of local teachers.

Notably, Newsom’s announcement included quotes from the two legislative education chairs, the California State PTA, California Medical Association and California Schools Employees Association — but not the state’s teachers unions.

Large districts have struggled to reach agreements with their employee unions on how to safely reopen. Some that were close to reopening in the fall shelved plans when infection rates surged to record heights and almost the entire state went into a stay-at-home order.

Several influential Democratic lawmakers — including those with long ties to teachers unions — introduced legislation this month that would force school districts to reopen when infection rates decline enough to qualify their counties for the state’s red tier. The California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers quickly mobilized members and made clear that they opposed any state attempt to override local decision-making by districts and their employee unions.

One of those lawmakers, Assembly Education Chair Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach), said that Newsom’s new plan is a reflection of the conversations O’Donnell and other lawmakers have had with the governor about how to safely reopen schools but that “it needs more work.” Assembly Bill 10, which would force all schools except those in the state’s purple tier to reopen by March, is “still alive and moving forward,” O’Donnell said.

“I think this is a reflection of those conversations but the conversations are not over,” O’Donnell said Wednesday.

O’Donnell said Newsom’s plan unveiled Wednesday would have to be approved “rapidly” by the Legislature via a budget trailer bill. Newsom is expected to release his January budget next week, which will be buoyed by a massive windfall that he and lawmakers can draw upon to help fund his schools approach.

The plan would allow families to remain in distance learning even if their schools reopen. That could pose one complication for districts, given that teachers have voiced concerns about how they would be able to teach students online and in person at the same time. But schools across the nation have provided models of how that could work.

Newsom’s proposal requires all students to wear masks, a change from previous rules that would have required it only for third grade and above.

The governor’s reopening announcement was not just a $2 billion plan, but a clear statement that the governor believes children belong back in school. That has been a difficult and controversial position for some leaders to take, especially Democrats whose supporters have been more resistant to school reopenings. The issue has been fraught with emotion, as some who believe schools should remain closed have accused reopening proponents of playing with the lives of teachers and students.

Seemingly cognizant of that position, Newsom accompanied his Wednesday rollout with multi-page statements defending school reopening. In a “rationale” document, the governor’s staff stated that “the social-emotional skills cultivated in the youngest grades are foundational for future wellbeing.” They also cited “lower rates of anxiety and depression” among students who are in classrooms, as well as a 40 percent drop-off in child welfare referrals since March, suggesting that much more child abuse may be going undetected.

The governor also issued a “science” defense, citing various studies showing that student-to-student transmission is low even in communities with high rates of coronavirus spread when the right classroom precautions are taken. His staff noted that this is especially the case among young students. And they said transmission more often happens outside of school.

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