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April 12, 2021

What to know about California’s plan to reopen schools

Plan offers incentives to schools that meet criteria

By Jill Cowan, The New York Times

Almost exactly a year ago, on March 7, 2020, officials in the Elk Grove Unified School District—Northern California’s largest—announced that schools would close for a week in response to concerns that the novel, unknown coronavirus could spread like wildfire among students and educators.

About a week later, Elk Grove extended the closure, and the state’s four biggest districts announced similar moves, collectively sending more than 1 million California students home.

It will never not be mind-boggling to look back on those early days of the pandemic. According to a California Today article from March 14, Sacramento County, which includes Elk Grove, had 16 confirmed coronavirus cases total at the time.

On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that about 3,500 new Covid-19 cases had been reported over the previous day in the state and the test positivity rate was 2.3 percent—a cause for celebration, compared with where the state was a month ago, he said.

We’ve come a long way.

Newsom mentioned the promising statistics as he stood inside Elk Grove’s Franklin Elementary School, along with the district’s superintendent and leaders of the state Legislature, as they unveiled what they said was the latest—and, ideally, last—sweeping, multibillion-dollar deal aimed at reopening schools.

Here’s what to know about the deal:

How does the plan work?

The plan essentially sets aside money to incentivize public school districts to bring students back into classrooms in stages. The deal involves a total of $6.6 billion: $2 billion in grants that would go toward safety measures such as protective equipment, ventilation upgrades and coronavirus testing. The rest, $4.6 billion, would pay for “expanded learning opportunities,” like tutoring and summer school, as well as expanded mental health services.

Districts would get a share of the $2 billion as long as they offer in-person instruction by the end of the month for children in transitional kindergarten through second grade, as well as high-needs students in all grades.

If schools are in a county that’s been able to move out of the most restrictive purple tier—meaning there are fewer than 7 new cases per day per 100,000 residents—that timeline would be accelerated: Districts must reopen all elementary school grades and at least one middle or high school grade by the end of the month, in order to get the funding.

If districts don’t meet that deadline to start bringing back students, they’ll lose 1 percent of their part of the $2 billion every day that they don’t. If the schools open after May 15, the number will shrink to zero.

Newsom said that once some groups of students return to schools safely, he’s confident that educators and officials will feel more comfortable bringing back more.

“Once you build a cohort,” he said. “you build trust.”

Does the state require teachers to be vaccinated before returning to schools?

Recently, that’s been a sticking point between the governor and the state’s teachers’ unions, who have demanded vaccinations as a condition of returning to what they regard as a potentially hazardous workplace. The governor, meanwhile, has cited federal guidance in saying that schools can safely reopen without teachers being vaccinated.

The bill does not require teachers to be vaccinated before schools reopen. It does, however, “codify” the state’s commitment to reserve 10 percent of vaccines for educators. And officials have emphasized they’re trying to speed up inoculations for teachers.

Does the plan allow for distance learning, even if some students are back in classrooms?

Yes. Districts just have to bring back some students to be eligible for the grants. Some of the money from the $4.6 billion pot can go toward supporting continued distance learning.

How do different groups feel about the deal?

Well, that’s always the tricky part.

Although lawmakers have been working for weeks to hammer out a deal that has buy-in from district officials, parents, lawmakers and school employee unions, the announcement Monday wasn’t exactly met with consensus.

Of course, Newsom said that the deal represented a promising milestone, a solution developed with input from the bottom up, and that it allowed for continued district-by-district flexibility.

Lawmakers said the plan recognized the importance of support for educators and students.

“What’s there left to say, except that we have all been working diligently to get to this moment?” Toni Atkins, a leader in the state Senate, said during the news conference Monday announcing the agreement.

Jeff Freitas, president of the powerful California Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that the deal was “a major step” and that he was “encouraged,” but that the union had hoped to see “more robust state level enforcement” of safety rules.

Other groups were less measured.

“This isn’t a breakthrough, it’s a failure,” Pat Reilly, a parent activist with the Oakland-based group Open Schools CA, said in an emailed statement. “Make no mistake, there will still be closed schools and kids left behind a month from now and months afterwards until the governor, legislature or the courts force them open.”

On the opposite side of the debate, Politico reported, the leader of the state’s largest local teachers’ union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles, slammed the deal as “propagating structural racism,” because it could require students, teachers and parents in communities where the spread of the virus is still disproportionately high to take on extra risk.

The idea of using financial incentives to entice districts to bring back their youngest students — which the governor pitched in December — is “deeply flawed,” said the Los Angeles union’s president, Cecily Myart-Cruz.

And The Los Angeles Times’s editorial board called the plan “a true April Fools’ deal” that won’t ensure that enough of the state’s 6 million schoolchildren get the in-person education they need before the school year is effectively over.

Finally, as my colleague Shawn Hubler noted, the money is modest by California standards. The state spent nearly $100 billion last year on its public school system, and the $2 billion pot will be open to more than 1,000 school districts.

Copyright 2021 The New York Times Company.

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