SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Hoping to get students back into classrooms before the clock runs out on the school year, the California Legislature unveiled a massive spending package they hope will entice schools to re-open for in-person learning by this spring.
The "Safe and Open Schools" plan outlined in a pair of bills announced Thursday will send more than $6.6 billion to schools that offer in-person instruction to — at the very least — homeless and low-income students, English-language learners, foster kids, and those without computer and internet access. The schools have until April 15 to meet this deadline, and by April 1, every school in the state must have a completed Covid-19 safety plan in place.
Senate Bill 86 and Assembly Bill 86 triple the amount of funding Governor Gavin Newsom proposed in December to encourage schools to reopen. The bills afford schools the flexibility to make up for lost instruction by extending the school year and offering additional academic services to close learning gaps.
Schools will also be able to provide students with free meals and mental health counseling, and purchase personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.
While the bills lack the governor’s blessing, Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said in a statement Thursday that they “keep the conversation going, both in the Legislature and with the governor. We all share the same goal — to get students back into school safely.”
She added: “These bills move us closer, and build on the governor’s framework based on feedback that we’ve heard from parents, students, and school employees, including teachers."
Her office confirmed the proposal is on top of $6 billion in reopening aid California received from the federal government, bringing the funding total to $12.6 billion.
Newsom, in a statement sent to Courthouse News through his press office, said he and other state leaders have prioritized reopening schools.
"Since the first week of this year, the Legislature has had before it our Administration’s plan to accelerate and support school reopenings for our youngest students – as safely and quickly as possible, the statement said. "My Administration has not waited: in that time, we have prioritized school staff for COVID-19 vaccinations, launched new online tools for transparency and accountability, provided technical assistance to hundreds of school districts, and are directly supporting over a thousand schools with routine COVID-19 testing.
"More importantly, local leaders have not waited: every day, more school leaders and staff are coming together to announce safe returns to in-person instruction," he said.
"While the Legislature’s proposal represents a step in the right direction, it doesn’t go far enough or fast enough. I look forward to building on the growing momentum to get our schools open and continuing discussions with the Legislature to get our kids back in school as safely and quickly as possible," he added.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, said that while it will help schools reopen with an infusion of cash, the legislation is not a cure-all for a school year lost to remote instruction.
“This is a major step, but it is not cause for taking a victory lap,” he said in a statement. “This legislation moves us closer to our common goal of getting each student safely into an optimal learning situation. It provides a plan and it provides funding — both for safe school opening and for extra attention to learning recovery. We need to make up for what students have missed without in-person instruction.”
Guidelines released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week recommend physical distancing, universal mask-wearing, contact tracing, and handwashing to reopen schools safely. The agency also said that that while ideal, teacher vaccinations are not required.
But teachers unions have balked at the idea of educators returning to classrooms this year absent large infusions of cash to, among other things, overhaul outdated ventilation systems. They’ve also parlayed their concerns into a push to get teachers vaccinated ahead of other vulnerable populations.
The foot-dragging prompted San Francisco to sue its own school district for depriving students of an education and discriminating against low-income students who cannot afford the requisite technology for remote learning.
Parochial and private schools have been open for months in both San Francisco and across the state, the city's complaint says.
The San Francisco Unified School District announced a tentative deal with its employee unions earlier this month, in which teachers and staff will return to schools only if they are vaccinated when the city is in red tier status. That is the second-to-highest threat level in which the risk of Covid-19 spread is considered “substantial” under California state guidelines.
If the city is in the lower orange tier, in which the risk of Covid-19 spread is considered “moderate,” teachers and staff will return to school regardless of their vaccination status.
Though Los Angeles county officials recently cleared elementary schools for in-person instruction, teachers unions remain resolute returning to school en masse remains unsafe.
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