SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) --- The rush to resume classes after a year-long hiatus is underway in California as lawmakers approved a $6.6 billion education plan Thursday that incentivizes districts to quickly reopen.
Under the plan approved by the state Senate and Assembly in bipartisan fashion, California will offer $2.2 billion in total bonuses for districts willing to resume at least part-time in-person instruction over the next two months. The scheme, which places a heavy focus on grades K-2 and special education, does not require teachers to be vaccinated or force districts to reopen by the deadline.
The proposal to pay schools for getting their youngest students back in classrooms comes after a year of wholesale closures and months of recent negotiations between Governor Gavin Newsom, the Legislature and teacher unions.
“I’m just so thankful this bill is moving forward,” said state Sen. Andreas Borgeas, R-Fresno. “I’ve got two little boys both of whom are in elementary school, and it has been almost a year they have been out of school…this is a huge step in the right direction.”
After previous reopening plans stalled in recent months, lawmakers broke the stalemate by uniting around a carrot-and-stick approach.
Starting April 1, districts will lose 1% of their available share of the $2 billion grant for every school day they remain closed. Districts unable to provide in-person learning at least one day a week by May 15 will miss out on the grant entirely.
To address the safety concerns of education workers and parents, the plan calls for regular Covid-19 testing of students and teachers in schools assigned to the purple tier. Testing will not be a requirement for schools in improved tiers or for those that have already reopened.
The remaining $4.5 billion is earmarked to help districts prep schools for social distancing, stockpile masks, alter the school calendar to make up for lost time and hire new staff. Meanwhile districts that have already opened or have approved their own reopening plan are exempt from Assembly Bill 86.
The proposal does not contain a minimum requirement for the length of school days.
Newsom introduced a similar approach filled with reopening bonuses three months ago that aimed to have younger children back in classes by February. But his plan failed to gain much traction with the teacher unions that argued districts shouldn’t reopen until infections dropped.
Last week, Assembly Democrats introduced their own plan that was quickly dashed by Newsom, who claimed it didn’t go far enough or get schools reopened fast enough.
This week, the state’s largest teacher union gave the plan a nod of support, saying it puts educators “one step closer to rejoining our students for in-person teaching and learning”.
On Thursday, proponents agreed the bill isn’t perfect but defended it as a plan that incentivizes districts without railroading local control.
“It has been an elusive task getting this bill to a vote,” acknowledged Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento. “The goal is to spur districts on the sidelines to act and also help those that are already acting.”
Most lawmakers cast the plan as a positive step during concurrent floor sessions, but a handful of GOP members made the case for a stricter statewide mandate. They said districts should be required to open up classrooms for all grades, not just K-2.
State Senate Minority Leader Scott Wilk said it leaves the door open for districts to simply ignore the grant funding and continue offering strictly distance learning. While he eventually voted yes on the bill, Wilk ripped it as an attempt by Newsom to score political points amid a viable recall attempt.
“I believe it’s a C.Y.A. maneuver by Governor Newsom to get parents to believe he’s doing everything he possibly can for them,” said Wilk, R-Santa Clarita.
But several Democrats countered a one-size-fits-all mandate to reopen schools wouldn’t work in a state with over 6 million students. Multiple lawmakers relayed conversations they’ve had with teachers and parents in their districts who remain wary of returning to the classroom despite improving pandemic trends.
Senate Republicans proposed several amendments prior to the vote on AB 86, including a requirement schools offer at least three days of in-person learning to qualify for the bonus, but they were easily dispatched by the Democratic majority. The state Senate eventually cleared the plan unanimously with a few GOP members declining to vote.
To help pay for student testing efforts, California will tap into its Medicaid program. On Wednesday, the Biden administration approved the state’s waiver to use Medi-Cal funds specifically to test low-income K-12 students.
State officials said California is the first to receive such a waiver and that it will help create testing opportunities for a broader range of students as schools begin to reopen.
“Further leveraging our state Medicaid program to increase access to testing will not only help us to reopen schools, but also ensure that testing becomes even more accessible for underserved students,” said California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly.
Over in the Assembly, the debate was more intense and emotional as lawmakers took turns talking about their family’s own struggles with distance learning.
“I’ve held my six-year-old as he cried that he couldn’t do one more minute on Zoom,” said Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan. “I’ve sat on the floor with my daughter as she begged to be back on the playground with her friends. I’ve seen the mental and physical toll this has taken on our children.”
Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, argued the 47-page plan merely establishes a baseline for school reopenings and lacks teeth. He said all students need to be back in the classroom immediately.
“What will our students see? An hour of in-person instruction? Three hours?” Fong asked. “Will it be two days a week? We don’t know, it’s not specified in this bill.”
After more than an hour of debate, the bill passed on the strength of the Democrats’ majority in the Assembly by a 72-4 margin. Newsom signed the bill into law during a virtual signing ceremony with lawmakers and education officials Friday.
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