State Officials Announce $6.6B Deal to Reopen Schools Statewide

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Photo: Santa Rosa City Schools

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials announced a deal on a $6.6 billion legislative package Monday that would support the statewide reopening of grades K-6 by the end of the month and grades 7-12 in early April. 

The package includes $2 billion in grants to support safety measures for students and educators returning to in-person classes, including personal protection equipment, improvements to classroom ventilation and regular coronavirus testing.

The remaining $4.6 billion would fund voluntary learning expansions, including extending the school year into the summer, tutoring to make up for learning lost amid the pandemic and mental health services for students. 

State legislators are expected to vote on the deal by the end of the week, according to Newsom. 

“So many of our kids and caregivers are celebrating this day because we all are united around coming back safely into the schools and helping with the socio-emotional supports that our kids so desperately need,” Newsom said. 

The reopening plan comes after months of haggling between officials in the Newsom administration, state legislators and teachers’ unions over details like required vaccinations and a reopening timeline that all sides agree is safe.

While the package does not require the vaccination of teachers before a school can reopen, Newsom underscored the state’s vaccine prioritization for teachers that began Monday, reserving 10 percent of the weekly vaccine shipments coming into the state for K-12 educators and child care workers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have yet to deem the three vaccines currently available as safe for children under the age of 16, although modified versions of the vaccines may be available for children later this year.

However, Newsom was noncommittal about adding the vaccine to the list of those required for public school students when it becomes available, noting that any such decision will be guided by the state’s vaccine safety advisory group when the time comes. 

The deal also stops short of mandating that all grades return to in-person classes across the state, instead tying those reopenings to state funding as an incentive. 

The deal requires in-person instruction at public schools to resume for K-2 students and all “high-needs” students in grades K-12—including English language learners, students in the foster care system and unhoused students—by the end of March.

Schools that do not comply would lose 1 percent of their funding per day if they are not open by then. 

Once a county is in the red tier of the state’s pandemic reopening system, schools would risk the same penalty if they do not offer in-person instruction to all elementary grade students and students in at least one middle or high school grade level.

Similar to the process through which the state allowed schools to reopen during last summer and fall’s swoon in cases, schools will also be required to submit detailed reopening plans to state officials and report their reopening status via the state’s website.

Schools in 35 of the state’s 58 counties have already resumed in-person classes in some form, according to the state. The plan announced Monday would incentivize in-person education in some form regardless of a county’s tier level.

“We’re not waiting to get out of this purple tier in order to get our kids safely back into in-person instruction,” Newsom said. “That’s what’s so meaningful to me, that we’re not slowing down, we’re now accelerating the pace of reopening.”

California Teachers Association president E. Toby Boyd praised the deal for including the safety measures and vaccine prioritization educators have asked for during negotiations and said the plan gets the state one step closer to schools finally reopening statewide. 

“This pandemic has been difficult and wearing on all of us, and it is going to continue to take all of us to make opening our schools for in-person instruction safe, stable and successful,” Boyd said.

Bay Area officials similarly praised the plan for reopening schools over the next six weeks.

“Our kids need to safely return to the classroom,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said in a Twitter post. “We’re reviewing this plan’s details but I want to thank (Newsom) on moving this forward.”

Breed and other San Francisco officials have butted heads with the San Francisco Unified School District in recent weeks for the district’s failure to begin reopening schools.

While the district released its latest proposal last week to reopen elementary schools, Superintendent Vincent Matthews said in a statement Monday that the state’s package will not change its reopening plans, which still do not include a tentative date to reopen.

“Though I wish it could, the governor’s announcement does not change our timeline because there are still many steps we need to take to get there and many of those aren’t able to be expedited, even with financial incentives,” Matthews said. “Make no mistake, we share the urgency to offer in-person instruction to as many students as soon as possible and more resources will help.”

The Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based nonprofit education advocacy group, framed the plan as the means to an end, arguing that simply returning the state’s education system to its pre-pandemic state will not be good enough for underprivileged students.

A poll that the group released last week of 600 parents across the state found that nearly 75 percent of parents with children age 5 and younger are concerned about their child’s education and development due to the pandemic.

The poll also found that low-income parents and parents of color were particularly affected by the pandemic-induced losses of child care and in-person classes.

“Parents are increasingly worried about the academic, social, and emotional development their students are missing through distance learning–and with good reason. … (S)chools will need to work with parents and community partners like never before to generate creative, engaging, fun learning experiences while tending to students’ social, emotional and mental health needs,” Education Trust-West executive director Dr. Elisha Smith Arrillaga said in a statement. 

State legislators representing the Bay Area were optimistic about the plan and the safe reopening of the region’s schools in the coming weeks. 

“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,” said state Sen. Dave Cortese, D-San Jose.