California’s effort will be in line with President-elect Joe Biden’s declaration that he wants to help districts reopen most schools in the first 100 days of his presidency, which starts Jan. 20.
It was not yet clear how teachers and their unions would react to the plan in California, where most school districts remain closed because of high coronavirus infection rates. Many educators have been reluctant to return to schools, fearful that there have not been sufficient protective measures taken to prevent coronavirus outbreaks. The Los Angeles Times reported that state officials plan to make local reopenings contingent on agreements between labor unions and districts.
And it is not clear how many districts will qualify for funding to reopen. Schools that would be eligible to reopen, according to Newsom’s plan, must be in counties with a seven-day average coronavirus positivity rate of fewer than 28 cases per 100,000 people. Right now, most urban areas in the state have much higher rates of transmission.
“As a father of four, I know firsthand what parents, educators and pediatricians continue to say: in-person is the best setting to meet not only the learning needs, but the mental health and social-emotional needs of our kids,” Newsom said in a statement.
The plan envisions first bringing students from preschool to Grade 2 back to campuses in February, along with students who are considered the most vulnerable and have special needs. Other grade levels would return on a phased schedule starting in March, with distance learning remaining an option for all families.
The $2 billion, if approved by the legislature, will be used for safety measures, including coronavirus testing for all students and staffers, personal protective equipment and updated ventilation systems. The plan also provides for improved coordination between school and health officials for contact tracing.
Newsom named Naomi Bardach, a pediatrician and school-safety specialist, to lead what he is calling the Safe Schools for All Team, a cross-agency group to help schools with reopening plans.
The state will also create a dashboard to allow the public to see schools’ reopening status, how much funding they will have and data on school outbreaks, Newsom said. A Web-based “hotline” will be established for teachers and parents to report concerns about reopening to the team.
The announcement comes nearly two months after the superintendents of the six largest school districts in the state sent Newsom a letter asking him for statewide guidance on how to safely reopen their schools during the pandemic. They released a statement expressing cautious optimism about the plan.
“We recognize much time has been put into the Governor’s plan, as two months have passed since our letter of November 2,” it said. “We will provide a thorough response prior to the Legislature reconvening on January 11.”
The school chiefs are Long Beach Unified Superintendent Jill Baker, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner, Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jorge A. Aguilar, San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten and San Francisco Unified Superintendent Vincent Matthews.
Underscoring the different approaches to reopening schools across the states, Newsom’s plan is the opposite of what Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) did this fall. DeSantis ordered school districts across the state to reopen for students five days a week and threatened to withhold millions of dollars in state funding if they did not.