The superintendents of seven of California’s largest school districts on Wednesday blasted Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) new school reopening plan, saying that it fails to address key factors keeping schools closed and does nothing to end the disproportionate impact the coronavirus pandemic is inflicting on low-income communities of color.

The letter sent Wednesday to Newsom makes clear that the superintendents don’t think the state is doing enough to reduce virus rates in low-income communities and that the governor’s initial intention to give $450 per student to schools with in-person learning could wind up helping wealthier communities and punishing poorer ones.

“Our schools stand ready to resume in-person instruction as soon as health conditions are safe and appropriate,” the letter says. “But we cannot do it alone.”

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for a comment about the letter. Tony Thurmond, state superintendent of public instruction, said in an email: “We must ensure that any resources, guidance, and supports provided to our schools at this critical time maintain an urgent focus on addressing the equity and opportunity gaps that have widened during this pandemic. I support the governor’s proposal and its goals, and I think it’s important that we listen to our school leaders in the field who are asking for more."

Newsom announced his “Safe Schools for All” plan on Dec. 30, saying that he wanted to spend $2 billion to help schools reopen starting in February — even as coronavirus infection and hospitalization rates are soaring in parts of the state.

The reopening plan calls for first bringing back students from preschool to Grade 2 and students who are vulnerable and have special needs, with other grade levels returning on a phased schedule starting in March.

But critics, while praising the intent, immediately slammed it for being incomplete and confusing. The Los Angeles Times’s editorial board wrote on Dec. 30: “It’s entirely possible that low-income schools will receive the worst of everything — no new funding, kids still stuck learning from home — while those in more affluent areas open for business and get $450 per student extra to boot.”

The school superintendents who wrote the letter collectively educate one-quarter of all students in California. They are Bob Nelson of Fresno Unified School District, Jill Baker of Long Beach Unified, Austin Beutner of Los Angeles Unified, Kyla Johnson-Trammell of Oakland Unified, Jorge A. Aguilar of Sacramento City Unified, Cindy Marten of San Diego Unified and Vincent Matthews of San Francisco Unified. Los Angeles Unified is the second-largest school district in the country.

Their letter says Newsom’s plan “does not address the disproportionate impact the virus is having on low-income communities of color” and that the plan to give $450 per student (which could go higher) to schools that have reopened to in-person learning effectively will hurt low-income areas.

“A funding model which only supports schools in communities less impacted by the virus is at odds with California’s long standing efforts to provide more support to students from low-income families,” the letter says.

The superintendents said that Newsom should set a statewide standard for reopening rather than allowing individual school districts to decide. His plan, the letter says, creates “a patchwork of safety standards” by “leaving the definition of a safe school environment and the standard for reopening classrooms up to the individual discretion of 1,037 school districts.”

California’s guidelines have stated for months that schools may consider reopening if what is called a state-adjusted coronavirus case count is at or below seven per 100,000 people. Yet, the letter says, “most community members cannot reconcile that figure to the actual case counts published every day by local health authorities because details on the state adjustment factors are not made public.”

And it says that Safe Schools for All changed that standard for elementary schools, raising it to 28 per 100,000 without explaining why the change was made. “It is important the public understand how the figure of 28 per 100,000 adjusted cases was determined and what science provides the foundation for this approach,” the letter says.

Right now, most urban areas in the state have much higher rates of transmission, and the superintendents said state officials have to do more to help those most affected by the pandemic.

“There is a greater occurrence of covid in low-income communities,” the letter says. “Blacks and Latinos are two to three times more likely, respectively, than Whites to be hospitalized for covid. They are more likely to be essential workers or those for whom work is essential to put a roof overhead or provide food for their family. They do not have the choice to work at home. A survey in Los Angeles Unified, where more than 80 percent of students live in poverty, showed 75 percent of families have had someone lose work due to the virus.

“The disproportionate impact the virus is having is also reflected in schools. School-based covid tests in December of children in Los Angeles with no known symptoms or exposure to the virus showed almost one in three children in the lowest-income communities had the virus compared with about 1 in 25 in more affluent areas.

“The disproportionate impact is consistent across the state. There is little likelihood the low income communities we serve will meet the proposed Safe Schools for All deadline of February 1 and many experts say even March 1st is unlikely, given current health conditions. Sadly, statewide covid numbers appear to be moving in the wrong direction in nearly every meaningful category — infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

“Public health officials must tackle this challenge head on — or we will be left with more of the same: continued high rates of the virus in low-income communities that make it unsafe to reopen classrooms. The potential solutions to reduce the spread of the virus extend far beyond the schoolhouse. These may include additional testing and health measures in communities which are most impacted, further restrictions on businesses like shopping malls, job or income support for low income families and priority vaccinations for essential workers.”

The superintendents also said that Newsom’s proposal to spend $2 billion to help school districts take necessary steps within school buildings to reopen is misguided because the money would come from funding already earmarked for K-12 education. Instead, any money the state provides for schools to take public health measures in schools should come from public health funds.

The letter says in part:

Our schools stand ready to resume in-person instruction as soon as health conditions are safe and appropriate. But we cannot do it alone. The past 10 months have been a well-documented struggle for millions of California schoolchildren and their families. “Safe Schools for All” is a start toward recovery, but we call on the state to acknowledge the following needs and take the actions necessary to implement them so all California children can receive the education they deserve:
-- Immediate, all-hands-on-deck, public health effort to reduce the spread of the virus in low income communities.
-- A clear, state standard for COVID-related health issues in schools with a requirement for in-classroom instruction to begin when the standard is met.]
-- Public health funds, not K-12 educational funds from Prop. 98, should be used for COVID testing and vaccinations.
-- School-based health services should be integrated with COVID testing and vaccination plans.
-- Learning loss recovery plans, including funding for summer school, need to be established now.
-- Reopening plan needs to include specific funding for special education students.
-- A timetable and plan for vaccinations of school staff should be made public by February 1.
-- The state should begin to publish detailed information on school and district status in meeting COVID health standards, providing in-person instruction and school-based virus occurrences by February 1.