Teacher Lisa Saulsbery gives air hugs to a student during recess at Weaverville Elementary School
Teacher Lisa Saulsbery gives air hugs to a student during recess at Weaverville Elementary School on Aug. 17 in Weaverville, Calif. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

Newsom promises $2 billion in hopes of reopening elementary schools beginning in February

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday announced a $2-billion package of financial incentives to encourage a return to in-person classroom instruction for California elementary school students as early as mid-February, an effort that would fund frequent coronavirus testing for students, teachers and staff.


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The proposal won’t immediately open any additional school campuses, given the bleak public health conditions across most of the state, and it remains unclear just how quickly many districts will qualify, especially those in large urban areas in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area.

In his announcement, Newsom said there was growing evidence that young students faced “decreased risks” associated with the coronavirus and benefited more from in-person instruction compared to at-home learning.

“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. “In the midst of this pandemic, my administration is focused on getting students back into the classroom in a way that leads with student and teacher health.”

Parents will still have the option to keep their children learning from home, even if their local schools reopen.

Newsom’s plan, expected to be submitted to the Legislature as an adjustment of the state budget for the current fiscal year, prioritizes returning students in kindergarten through the second grade to the classroom as well as those with special instructional needs. The remainder of elementary school students could return as early as sometime in March. It remained unclear when older students would return to campuses.

All school staff and students who return to school would be required to wear masks.

Education sources who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity before the official announcement said a number of questions remained unanswered. They said administration officials planned to make the local implementation plans subject to collective bargaining agreements between labor unions and officials in each district.

Although the Newsom administration will support COVID-19 testing of teachers, staff and students, the governor’s plan does not appear to mandate testing. The governor did say that school staff would be “prioritized” for COVID-19 vaccinations.

Newsom said schools in counties with a seven-day average of fewer than 28 cases per 100,000 residents would be eligible to open — a threshold that allows some schools in purple tier regions to resume in-person classes. Los Angeles County and many other urban areas are experiencing far higher rates of transmission and would not be expected to reopen for some time.

Education advocates may be particularly worried about the details of how the plan is funded. The proposal includes the $2 billion as part of the funding guaranteed to schools under the California Constitution — which means the money for coronavirus testing and other needs would otherwise be spent on a variety of existing school programs.

Under Newsom’s plan, districts that offer in-person instruction would receive about $450 per student, a figure that could increase for those from low-income families, English learners and foster youth.

In November, superintendents from some of California’s largest school districts — including the Los Angeles Unified School District and Long Beach Unified School District — sent a letter to Newsom urging him to establish common statewide standards for school reopenings, including testing requirements. social distancing criteria and employee protections.

The announcement comes after months of demands for Newsom to lay out a more far-reaching, statewide set of guidelines for when K-12 campuses would reopen. The governor’s most notable decision on when to resume in-person learning, unveiled in July, still left the final decision in the hands of individual school districts as virus transmissions decreased in a number of California communities in early fall.

Critics said the result was an ever-widening gap between schools with resources, largely in affluent communities, and those serving lower-income families and left to full-time remote learning. Those criticisms also noted that a number of private schools were the ones to open first, and have been allowed to remain open even as local public health conditions have worsened.

Earlier this month, a group of prominent Democrats in the Legislature demanded a plan that would tightly link the return of in-person learning with reduced local virus transmissions. Legislation introduced earlier this month would require school districts to open campuses in California counties that had been removed from the most restrictive “purple” tier of COVID-19 protections. Current policy makes it optional for schools to reopen in the less restrictive tiers.

The funds for the new effort will be included in Newsom’s budget proposal for the coming year, to be unveiled next week. Legislative analysts and the governor have estimated a large windfall of tax revenue — of $15.5 billion or more — resulting from a smaller than expected drop in personal income taxes paid by Californians. Some of the surprise revenue will, under longstanding rules, automatically be spent on public schools, but lawmakers could add more cash to that total in support of the governor’s proposal and other efforts.

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