Newsom pushes February school reopening plan in California

Evianna Van Santvoord, who is in kindergarten, does her schoolwork at home on March 18, 2020 in San Anselmo, Calif. | Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

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.”

Initial indications, however, suggest that California could have a long ways to go on reducing infections before opening schools. The California Teachers Association said that it still believes campuses should not reopen until counties reach the state’s red tier of infections, a level far lower than where most counties are now.

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.

Notably, Newsom’s announcement included quotes from the two legislative education chairs, the California State PTA, California Medical Association and 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 safely reopen. Some that were close to reopening in the fall shelved plans when infection rates surged to record heights and almost the entire state went into a stay-at-home order.

Several influential Democratic lawmakers — including those with long ties to teachers unions — introduced legislation this month that would force school districts to reopen when infection rates decline enough to qualify their counties for the state’s red tier. The California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers quickly mobilized members and made clear that they opposed any state attempt to override local decision-making by districts and their employee unions.

One of those lawmakers, Assembly Education Chair Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach), said that Newsom’s new plan is a reflection of the conversations O’Donnell and other lawmakers have had with the governor about how to safely reopen schools but that “it needs more work.” Assembly Bill 10, which would force all schools except those in the state’s purple tier to reopen by March, is “still alive and moving forward,” O’Donnell said.

“I think this is a reflection of those conversations but the conversations are not over,” O’Donnell said Wednesday.

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.”

Wednesday’s announcement included one shift away from California’s local control policy so far by requiring public health departments to reject a school district’s reopening plan within five days. Without such action, schools have the green light to reopen. The new plan flips the latest policy on its head, which allowed elementary schools that wish to reopen to apply for a waiver, then await approval.

“Our members want to get back to school as soon as it’s safe to do so, and many of our districts have felt they lack the resources, whether that’s funding, staffing or expertise on safety. To the extent that this plan removes those barriers, it’s a very positive development,” said California School Boards Association spokesperson Troy Flint. “There’s still work to be done on the local level to make sure this broad plan reflects all the individual circumstances in different communities.”

California Teachers Association President E. Toby Boyd praised Newsom’s safety supports but said he hopes the guidelines will “create a coherent statewide plan rather than creating more confusion for parents and school districts.” CTA said it still believes no school should open until its county reaches the red tier, which would require a much lower infection rate than Newsom’s new plan would.

“There are many unanswered questions and the devil is always in the details, particularly as it relates to implementation and execution,” Boyd said in a statement.

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.

Source link

Related Articles

Back to top button