Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a $2 billion proposal on Wednesday, Dec. 30, to encourage school districts to bring back elementary school students as soon as February.
The plan would use funds from the state’s 2021-22 budget to support schools that reopen their campuses in February and March. Newsom will likely reveal the full budget proposal next week.
“In-person instruction,” Newsom said in a Wednesday morning briefing, “we believe, and we’ve said this for months and months and months — it’s our default.”
The plan, however, includes a significant exception that could impact the ability for school districts across Southern California to take advantage: Counties must have a seven-day average of fewer than 28 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people.
As of Tuesday, Los Angeles County had 132.7 cases per 100,000 people, while Orange County had 98.5. Riverside County had 140.5 cases per 100,000 people, and San Bernardino County had 165.5.
But as surges associated with the holidays eventually wane, it’s possible the case rates throughout the Southland will be significantly lower by February or March.
The plan, Newsom said, would use a phased-in approach, prioritizing the students who benefit most from in-person instruction. So as early as February, schools would be encouraged to bring transitional kindergarten through sixth grade students, as well as students with special needs, back to campus.
The state would then support schools, financially and in various other ways, in the hope of allowing all other students, Newsom said, to return to campus by early spring.
Distance learning, meanwhile, would remain an option for parents who are uncomfortable with sending their kids back to school.
The plan has four aspects: funding to support safe reopenings, safety and mitigation measures for classrooms, hands-on oversight and assistance for schools, and transparency and accountability for families and school staff.
“The point of emphasis here is that safety is key,” Newsom said. “Just reopening a school for in-person instruction on its own is not going to address the issue of safety. We have to focus on these mitigation steps. We have to focus on accountability. We have to focus on issues associated with being much more transparent.”
Newsom said the proposal would build on and strengthen guidance to schools that was issued earlier in the pandemic.
To be eligible to reopen their campuses under the new plan, elementary schools must submit a safety plan to local and state officials. By default, school safety plans would be approved — unless the local health department disapproved the plan within five days.
Plans would have to include coronavirus testing, which Newsom said would be funded through MediCal. The required frequency of testing would depend on where the county falls in the state’s coronavirus tier system.
Schools in “yellow” and “orange tiers” would have to provide symptomatic and response testing, while those in the “red” and “purple” tiers would also have to conduct asymptomatic testing every two weeks. Counties with more than 14 cases per 100,000 people, meanwhile, would have to conduct weekly asymptomatic testing.
All students would be required to wear masks, and all staff members would be required to wear surgical masks, which the state would provide at no cost.
In addition to the stricter requirements for testing and mask use, Newsom said, the new plan would also focus on tighter enforcement and accountability to ensure schools are following the rules.
All schools that reopen their campuses, for example, must post their safety plans online and report data, including in-school coronavirus transmission, to the state.
The state would also publish a dashboard with schools’ reopening status, in-school transmission and level of state funding.
The $2 billion in state funds, which would translate to $450-$750 per student, would be disbursed to schools according to a formula that prioritizes campuses that serve students from low-income families, English learners, foster youth and others who have been disproportionately impacted by campus closures.
“It’s an obligation with these new measures,” Newsom said, “that we’re more transparent and also that we’re all more accountable, across the spectrum.”
The state would also create a web-based “hotline,” Newsom said, for school staff and parents to report concerns.
The governor also announced a new cross-agency team, led by pediatrician and school epidemiology expert Dr. Naomi Bardach, that will monitor and respond to data in real time and conduct school walkthroughs as needed. The team will also publish webinars and training materials for schools and answer questions from school leaders and staff.
The announcement came two months after the superintendents of the Los Angeles, Long Beach, Santa Ana, San Diego, Fresno, Oakland and Sacramento unified school districts sent a letter to Newsom, urging him and the state legislature to adopt a set of statewide reopening standards and to provide funding to ensure schools have the means to resume in-person classes safely.
The letter called for a “common standard” for all districts to reopen their campuses, which would include:
Health and safety protocols, such as mandatory daily health and temperature checks and personal protective equipment;
COVID-19 testing and community contact tracing efforts;
The ability to provide adequate instruction, student supervision and transportation; and
Protections for employees who may not be able to return to school because of a health issue or because they are caring for someone at home.
“The undersigned superintendents have agreed that a Common Standard is needed to serve as a blueprint for schools to safely reopen and remain open,” the Nov. 2 letter said. “Our ability to implement a Common Standard, however, is dependent upon the necessary funding and participation by federal, state, and local governments and health authorities.”
Newsom’s announcement on Wednesday appeared to address many of those concerns, though representatives for those districts were not immediately available for comment.
But education leaders at the state level praised the new proposal.
“Until the (vaccine) doses are available, it seems to me there’s nothing more important than robust COVID testing and contact tracing,” the state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said in the briefing. “This is the key pathway for helping our schools to be open. We look forward to working with school districts.”
California State PTA President Celia Jaffe, meanwhile, said the plan addresses the needs of parents across the state.
“A safe return of kids to the classroom is on the wish list of countless California families, and Governor Newsom’s Safe Schools for All Plan paves the way,” Jaffe said in a statement. “The plan is rooted in science, health and safety — all key tenets to any conversation about returning to in-person instruction.”
Health leaders also said they supported the plan, particularly as a growing number of studies have shown that coronavirus transmission in schools, when the proper safety protocols are in place, is relatively low.
“School is an essential service for millions of California children and their families, especially in lower-income communities where we are seeing higher rates of adverse health impacts tied to prolonged time away from the classroom,” Dr. Shannon Udovic-Constant, chair of California’s Medical Association Board of Trustees, said in a statement. “Getting schools reopened quickly and safely is an issue of equity.”