SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Seeking to close a student learning gap exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced $2 billion in financial incentives Wednesday aimed at encouraging schools to safely relaunch in-person instruction as early as February.
The pandemic forced the Golden State’s education system and its thousands of instructors, administrators and more than 6 million students, to shift to online instruction in order to curb viral spread on school campuses.
The shift to distance learning nine months ago exacerbated inequities in education and warrants a move toward bringing students into the classroom in spring 2021, Newsom said in a virtual press conference.
“Kids are learning but not learning equally. There’s no substitute for in-person instruction,” Newsom said, adding evidence shows virtual learning is more difficult for younger students who may have trouble focusing on their electronic devices.
The governor acknowledged Californians may feel anxious about sending their children back into the classroom but said scientific evidence demonstrates reduced risk of Covid-19 transmission when campuses follow health guidelines.
“Going to school is not associated with higher risks of transmission,” Newsom said. “Safety is key. We have to focus on mitigation and accountability.”
School districts had told Newsom they wouldn’t explore reopening plans until the state had robust plans for testing and contact tracing. On Wednesday, Newsom said his $2 billion plan will fund schools’ safety measures including robust testing for students and staff, improved building ventilation systems and the purchase of personal protective equipment stockpiles.
The plan will prioritize younger children up to sixth grade and school districts that serve homeless children, foster children, special education students and others who’ve been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19.
To be eligible for reopening, schools must post their safety plans online — which local health departments can reject — and must work with local officials to monitor progress if approved.
Eligibility also requires that counties have a 7-day average case rate that is less than 28 cases per 100,000 residents per day.
California has already distributed more than $5 billion in federal relief funds to cash-strapped school districts to help cover costs associated with the shift to distance learning during the pandemic.
Joining Newsom for the virtual announcement, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond pushed aside the notion that 2020 was a “lost year” for California’s students.
“Students are always learning,” Thurmond said. “It would be a misnomer to say it’s a lost year. This year we’re preserving life and working to offset the gaps accelerated by the pandemic.”
Newsom said his administration will work with state lawmakers to consider measures that help students make up for a lack of in-person instruction, including by boosting tutoring services and potentially extending the school year into the summer or making the school day longer.
While Newsom did not clarify whether reopening plans would have to be collectively bargained with teachers unions across the state, he said his administration continues to have “constructive” conversations about the plan with the California Teachers Association.
A California Teachers Association spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the plan. But Max Arias, director of Service Employees International Union Local 99, which represents thousands of education staff statewide, said in a statement Wednesday Newsom’s plan to safely relaunch in-person learning has the backing of his union.
“As we move into 2021, we look forward to moving safely and with due caution to more and more in-person instruction,” Arias said. “We appreciate the governor’s focus on the safety and health of students, all school workers, and our communities through strong safety standards and technical and financial support from the state.
Newsom’s plan comes a day after state health officials extended stay-at-home orders for millions of Californians in the Central Valley and Southern California, where surges in new infections are overwhelming hospitals and intensive care units.
On Wednesday, state health officials reported a record high 432 deaths from Covid-19, a figure that eclipses the 7-day average of 239 deaths from the virus. The state saw more than 30,900 new infections Wednesday and 20,612 people with Covid-19 are in hospitals, and Newsom said the number of people admitted to ICUs has increased 34% in the last two weeks.
Under the state order, businesses must operate with reduced customer capacity, in-person gatherings are prohibited, and while religious services and protests can be held outdoors only, attendees must wear masks and practice social distancing.
Regions included in the order will remain under stay-at-home orders for three weeks or until they have at least 15% of their ICU beds available.
In the Southern California and San Joaquin Valley regions, ICU capacity has fallen to zero percent, meaning hospitals are now at surge capacity and unequipped to provide the best care for patients who do not have Covid-19.
During Newsom’s separate conversation with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Fauci said schools can and should reopen safely — but only if they’re given personal protective equipment and other resources needed to conduct widespread testing and contact tracing.
“If you want to get society back to some level of normality one of the things we have to do is get children back to school,” Fauci told Newsom.
Newsom asked Fauci, a leading voice in the fight against the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, whether the nation had “overpromised” vaccine availability and if it was behind on distribution. Fauci said the Trump administration’s distribution is behind — having only vaccinated about 2 million of its goal of 20 million people at this point — but said he expects momentum to pick up in the spring.
After that, if at least 70% of Americans have been vaccinated by fall, the nation may finally see semblance of normalcy as states determine whether it’s safe enough to reopen shuttered sectors of society, Fauci said.
Newsom also received a letter Wednesday from Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn backing health care workers’ request for additional medical staff to support the region’s struggling hospitals. The workers also want Newsom to ask the Trump administration to send the U.S. Navy hospital ship Mercy to LA County, where hospitals are overrun with Covid patients.
“Our SEIU health care workers are exhausted and our hospitals are overwhelmed. They need backup,” Hahn said in a statement. “This surge is the crisis that we dreaded all along. We need as much support as we can get for our health care workers and we need the USNS Mercy back in the Port of Los Angeles.”