SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a $2 billion push Wednesday to reopen California elementary schools for the youngest students in February, offering incentives and testing to school districts that resume classroom instruction.
Most of California's 6 million public school students have been learning remotely since the pandemic forced widespread closures in March. While a smattering of districts opened this fall when infection rates were lower, most kept campuses shut and stayed online, especially those in large metropolitan areas.
Newsom's plan relies on carrots rather than sticks in trying to reopen elementary schools across California. The centerpiece is a $2 billion mid-year budget request that would channel money toward getting kids back in classrooms, with an emphasis on younger children who are in transitional kindergarten through second grade. Priority will be given to districts with large numbers of low-income students, foster youth or English learners — groups whose disadvantages have been exacerbated during distance learning.
"As a parent of very young children, in-person instruction, there's just no substitute for it," said Newsom, a father of four. "It's just so much more difficult for a 4-year-old to focus on a device than a 14-year-old."
The framework also seeks to ramp up testing at schools and to furnish educators with more protective equipment, including by distributing millions of surgical masks for free. Newsom's plan would prioritize inoculating school staff through the spring; teachers and child care providers are expected to be next in line for vaccines after the current round devoted to health care workers and those in nursing homes.
The state will also launch a public database tracking transmissions in schools, an effort at transparency that follows increasing complaints that the state has provided little information on school opening status or infection rates among students.
The timing is far from perfect. California is in the midst of a record level of infections and hospitalizations, with facilities in Southern California running out of bed space and having conversations about rationing care. Newsom said Wednesday that his plan would kick in when counties reduce their daily new cases below 28 per 100,000 residents. While that is still far below the state's current average of 93 new daily cases per 100,000, it's four times the rate that California previously allowed for schools to reopen without waivers.
But Newsom's rollout comes as families have expressed frustration with distance learning and critics have assailed him for sending his own children back to private school in November without a cohesive plan to reopen public schools. That frustration is one of many that Newsom must confront as conservative Republicans continue to gather signatures for a recall drive, which just received a boost with more than $600,000 in contributions this week.
While Newsom and lawmakers have come under immense pressure to reopen schools sooner, that has put them in direct opposition to influential teachers unions that argue classrooms remain unsafe for teachers. Unions have already opposed legislation to compel swifter reopenings, and the success of Newsom’s plan could hinge on the approval and cooperation of local teachers.
At the same time, families of color have disproportionately suffered from the pandemic and have expressed concerns about sending their children back. In New York City, white families have been more eager to return to campuses, creating different inequity concerns.
California Federation of Teachers President Jeff Freitas said that union support of in-person instruction hinges on vaccine timelines. Both Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond reiterated at a press conference on Wednesday that teachers will be prioritized for vaccine distribution, after health care workers.
“We appreciate the governor working with us and providing an incentive to reopen instead of mandating in-person education,” Freitas said. “Stakeholder input is required, and I think input is with a capital 'I' emphasizing that it’s more than just listening. There needs to be some type of sign off by all stakeholders.”
O’Donnell said Newsom’s plans would have to be approved “rapidly” by the Legislature via a budget trailer bill. Newsom is expected to release his January budget next week, which will be buoyed by a massive windfall that he and lawmakers can draw upon to help fund his schools approach.
The plan would allow families to remain in distance learning even if their schools reopen. That could pose one complication for districts, given that teachers have voiced concerns about how they would be able to teach students online and in person at the same time. But schools across the nation have provided models of how that could work.
Newsom's proposal requires all students to wear masks, a change from previous rules that would have required it only for third grade and above.
The governor's reopening announcement was not just a $2 billion plan, but a clear statement that the governor believes children belong back in school. That has been a difficult and controversial position for some leaders to take, especially Democrats whose supporters have been more resistant to school reopenings. The issue has been fraught with emotion, as some who believe schools should remain closed have accused reopening proponents of playing with the lives of teachers and students.
Seemingly cognizant of that position, Newsom accompanied his Wednesday rollout with multi-page statements defending school reopening. In a "rationale" document, the governor's staff stated that "the social-emotional skills cultivated in the youngest grades are foundational for future wellbeing." They also cited "lower rates of anxiety and depression" among students who are in classrooms, as well as a 40 percent drop-off in child welfare referrals since March, suggesting that much more child abuse may be going undetected.
The governor also issued a "science" defense, citing various studies showing that student-to-student transmission is low even in communities with high rates of coronavirus spread when the right classroom precautions are taken. His staff noted that this is especially the case among young students. And they said transmission more often happens outside of school.
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