SACRAMENTO – Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday announced a $ 2 billion push to reopen California elementary schools for younger students in February, offering incentives and testing to school districts that resume classroom instruction.
Most of California’s 6 million public school students have learned remotely since the pandemic forced widespread shutdowns in March. While a handful of districts opened this fall when infection rates were lower, most have closed campuses and stayed online, especially those in large metropolitan areas.
Newsom’s plan relies on carrots rather than sticks in an attempt to reopen elementary schools across California. The centerpiece is a $ 2 billion mid-year budget request that would funnel money to bring children back to classrooms, with a focus on young children who are in transition kindergarten through to second year. Priority will be given to districts with large numbers of low-income students, host youth or English learners – groups whose disadvantages have been exacerbated during distance education.
The framework also aims to step up testing in schools and provide educators with more protective gear, including distributing millions of surgical masks for free. Newsom’s plan would prioritize inoculation of school staff until spring; Teachers and childcare providers are expected to be the next to receive vaccines after the current cycle of healthcare workers and those in nursing homes.
The state will also launch a public school transmission tracking database, a transparency effort that follows growing complaints that the state has provided little information on schools’ opening status or rates. infection among students.
While Newsom and lawmakers have come under immense pressure to reopen schools earlier, it has brought them into direct opposition to influential teacher unions who argue that classrooms remain dangerous for teachers. Unions have already opposed legislation to force faster reopenings, and the success of Newsom’s plan may depend on the approval and cooperation of local teachers.
Notably, Newsom’s announcement included quotes from the two presidents of legislative education, the California State PTA, the California Medical Association and the 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 reopen safely. Some that were set to reopen in the fall were shelved when infection rates hit record highs and almost the entire state began to stay at home.
Several influential Democratic lawmakers – including those with long-standing ties to teachers’ unions – introduced legislation this month that would require school districts to reopen when infection rates drop enough to qualify their counties for the red state level. The California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers quickly mobilized members and made it clear that they opposed any attempt by the state to override local decision-making by districts and their employee unions.
One of those lawmakers, Assembly Speaker for Education Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach), said Newsom’s new plan reflected conversations O’Donnell and d Other lawmakers have had with the governor on how to safely reopen schools, but that “he needs more work.” Assembly Bill 10, which would force all schools except those at the state’s purple level to reopen by March, is “still alive and moving forward,” O’Donnell said .
“I think it’s a reflection of those conversations, but the conversations aren’t over,” O’Donnell said Wednesday.
O’Donnell said Newsom’s plan unveiled Wednesday is expected to be approved “quickly” by the legislature via a budget bill. Newsom is expected to release his January budget next week, which will be backed by a massive windfall that he and lawmakers can draw upon to help fund his approach to schools.
The plan would allow families to stay in distance education even if their schools reopen. This could pose a complication for districts, as teachers have expressed concerns about how they might teach students online and in person at the same time. But schools across the country have provided models of how it might work.
Newsom’s proposal requires all students to wear masks, a change from previous rules that would only have required them for grade three and above.
The governor’s reopening announcement was not just a $ 2 billion plan, but a clear statement that the governor believes children have a place in school. This has been a difficult and controversial position for some leaders to take, especially Democrats whose supporters have been more resistant to reopening schools. The question was emotional, as some who believe schools should remain closed accused supporters of the reopening of playing with the lives of teachers and students.
Apparently aware of this position, Newsom accompanied its deployment on Wednesday with multi-page statements defending the reopening of the school. In a “rationale” document, the governor’s staff said “the socio-emotional skills cultivated in the younger classes are fundamental to future well-being.” They also cited “lower rates of anxiety and depression” among students who are in class, as well as a 40 percent drop in referrals to child welfare services since March, suggesting that much more child abuse might go undetected.
The governor also issued a “scientific” defense, citing various studies showing that student-to-student transmission is low, even in communities with high coronavirus rates when the right classroom precautions are taken. His team noted that this is particularly the case among young students. And they said the transmission happens more often outside of school.