Newsom Secures Deal to Reopen California Schools by April

Under a proposal announced Monday, the state will offer $2 billion to districts willing to quickly get grades K-2 back on campus.

Residents of East Los Angeles stand in line and wait in their cars to collect food donations outside James A. Garfield High School as part of the school district’s effort to support families struggling through the Covid-19 pandemic. (Courthouse News photo / Martin Macias Jr.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — In a rush to bring children back to the classroom after a year of closed campuses, California Governor Gavin Newsom and lawmakers said Monday the state will offer $2 billion to school districts willing to reopen next month.

In an agreement between Newsom and the state’s legislative leaders, grants will be offered to districts with low coronavirus case rates that are able to reopen for in-person learning beginning April 1. The plan, 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.

If approved by the Legislature, the plan would commit a total of $6.5 billion to help schools make up for lost time and resources during the pandemic closures that have been in place for most since last March.

“We want schools to safely reopen period. Full stop,” Newsom said during a press conference Monday. “We believe they can safely reopen and we believe the science and data bear that out.”

The rush will be on as Monday’s plan takes a carrot and stick and approach to the reopenings.

Starting April 1, districts will lose 1% of their available share of the $2 billion grant for each school day they remain closed. Districts unable to provide in-person learning by May 15 will miss out on the grant entirely.

The K-2 requirement applies to all districts, including those in counties continuing to see high infection rates. As conditions improve in their respective counties, districts will be required to expand classes to higher grades in order to remain eligible for the grant funding.

Currently, 47 of the state’s 58 counties were experiencing what state officials consider “widespread” transmission rates and remain in the most restrictive purple tier of Newsom’s reopening framework. Newsom said seven more counties could be bumped out of the purple tier on Tuesday.

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 those that have already reopened, nor does the proposal outline a minimum requirement for the length of school days. 

Many Democratic lawmakers are already on board with the amended reopening plan, including state state Senator Dave Cortese who said the state could no longer afford to keep children out of schools.

“I am hopeful that this plan will address the learning loss that students have experienced without in-person instruction, while ensuring that our educators, students, and families are as protected as possible,” Cortese said in a statement. “Responding to learning loss impacts as well as considerations for physical and mental health must be factored into our state’s next steps moving forward to continue to support the overall health and well-being of all children.”

Along with Cortese, other Democrats publicly backing the deal include Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove.

Atkins told reporters at a Sacramento-area elementary school the deal reflects weeks and months of prickly negotiations on figuring out how to get California’s over 10,000 schools reopened. She thanked the governor, fellow lawmakers and teacher unions for working daily and bargaining in good faith.

“We’ve all been working diligently to get to this moment,” said Atkins, D-San Diego. “You can’t reduce any of this to a couple of sound bites, there’s absolutely no way.” 

The proposal, which could be voted on in the Legislature as early as Thursday, comes after months of tense negotiations between Newsom, lawmakers and teacher unions.

Newsom introduced a similar approach filled with reopening bonuses three months ago that aimed to have younger children back in classes by February, but it didn’t 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.

During previous negotiations the California Teachers Association has pressed the state to commit to earmarking enough Covid-19 vaccines for all teachers. The union’s latest reopening plan calls for all teachers to be given a chance to be vaccinated before returning to classrooms, as well as a similar phased-in approach that prioritizes early grades and asymptomatic testing for staff and students.

The association commended Newsom and the legislative leaders on the budding reopening plan, saying it falls in line with its push for a layered reopening chalked with testing requirements and vaccines for workers.  

“The plan announced today by Gov. Newsom and legislative leaders gets us one step closer to rejoining our students for in-person teaching and learning,” said association president Toby Boyd in a statement. “As community infection rates decline, more counties move into less restrictive tiers, and educators are increasingly vaccinated statewide, this plan will help ensure transparency and accountability by requiring school districts to submit safety plans before reopening, posting plans on school district websites, and enforcing the collection of statewide school data.”

Though Newsom reiterated Monday he does not view teacher vaccinations as a reopening prerequisite, the Democratic governor has in recent days made concessions including a promise to reserve at least 10% of the state’s future vaccine supply for educators. He’s also relaxed prohibitions on youth sports, allowing outdoor team sports like football, rugby and water polo to resume in counties with low case rates.

The state’s largest district cast Newsom’s vaccine guarantee as a “game-changer,” with Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beitner saying the additional allotments will allow for all its staff working with the youngest students to be vaccinated over the next two weeks.

“He’s prioritizing access to school communities with an eye to expanding educational opportunities, especially for our younger students in communities most impacted by the virus,” Beitner said during a weekly update. “We’re seeing the focused support right here — the governor has dedicated access for 25,000 additional vaccine doses for school staff in Los Angeles Unified over the next two weeks.”   

Los Angeles County expanded its eligibility pool on Monday to include food workers, emergency responders and teachers. It may also be one of the county’s to exit the most restrictive tier Tuesday — its test positivity rate has dropped to 3%, thanks in large part to the fact it’s distributed 2 million vaccines.

Statewide, Covid-19 hospitalizations fell 42% over the last two weeks and the state’s positivity rate has plummeted to 2.3%. Meanwhile California has now administered over 9 million doses of the vaccine, the most of any state.

Newsom said the massive package will help districts secure masks and other protective equipment, hire new staff, improve sanitization as well as equip classrooms and campuses for physical distancing requirements. He added flexibility is the hallmark of the plan as it gives districts the flexibility to consider altering school calendars-including summer school- to make up for lost time.

“We expect that all of our transitional kindergarten to second grade classrooms open within the next month and we want to see more happen beyond that,” Newsom outlined. “Once you dip your toe in, once you build a cohort confidently…then we will start to see a cadence of reopening across the spectrum.”

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