In-class learning
In-class learning isn’t likely to return here by February for most schools.
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COVID K-12

State’s plan to help speed elementary reopening might have limited impact on local schools

While Gavin Newsom introduced a plan to get elementary school kids back in classes by February, Santa Cruz school officials are voicing skepticism that all the necessary pieces will fall into place to make that happen.

Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a plan Wednesday to give schools a financial incentive to move more quickly to return elementary students to in-person instruction this spring.

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But at first blush, the plan’s impact on local public schools appears limited, according to Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah.

“This doesn’t change the reality that we have to continue getting support from our school community, we have to make sure that we’re working with our local public health officials, and we want to make sure that local conditions are really appropriate” for reopening, Sabbah said Wednesday.

Newsom’s Safe Schools for All plan offers a total of $2 billion in state funding to elementary schools that follow its framework and begin the return to in-person learning Feb. 15 — starting with the youngest students up to second grade, then progressing up to grade 6. Per student funding would range from $450 to $750, dependent on a needs-based formula.

Elementary schools in the most-restrictive purple tier counties are eligible to reopen under the plan as long as their 7-day average COVID-19 case rate is below 28 per 100,000 residents.

More specifics are expected to emerge next week, and the funding depends on support from the Legislature.

Newsom’s announcement came as a bit of a surprise given California’s recent surge in coronavirus cases, But the governor cited evidence that elementary students are at a decreased risk of being harmed by the virus and that in-person instruction trumps remote learning.

Earlier this week, Sabbah said he didn’t expect local public schools to return most students to campus until March at the earliest. On Wednesday, Sabbah said himself and district superintendents will likely send a joint letter to families addressing the plan by the end of next week.

In light of the new framework, he said it would be premature to rule out an earlier return to campus for any local elementary school. But the state’s plan, he said, doesn’t seem to solve one especially thorny issue districts face: securing support from their teacher and staff unions.

“A lot of the issues related to the opening of schools — the impacts have to be negotiated with our bargaining unit members,” Sabbah said. “So even though the governor didn’t address that piece, we would have to address that.”

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Casey Carlson — president of the Greater Santa Cruz Federation of Teachers union — said she is also skeptical of meeting the mid-February timeline.

“Our biggest concern at this point in terms of the timeline is we want school employees to get vaccinated before schools reopen,” Carlson said, adding the union’s membership is set to vote on a resolution detailing that and other concerns on Monday.

Recent estimates from local officials suggest teacher and school staff vaccinations won’t be completed until March, a year after public schools first shuttered their campuses due to the pandemic.

Between the pandemic’s high rate of spread and vaccine availability on the horizon, waiting a little longer for campuses to reopen may make more sense, said Helayne Balaban, a third grade teacher at Bay View Elementary.

“Pushing back a month sooner isn’t going to fix the economy, isn’t going to change kids’ longterm educational position,” Balaban said.

All Santa Cruz County public schools have stayed in a mostly remote learning mode throughout the pandemic, with only small groups of high-need students returning to school campuses this fall.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen local private schools have more broadly reopened, according to tallies from local officials. Some, such as Santa Cruz’s Kirby School, reverted to remote learning at the end of November as COVID-19 cases surged to new heights.

Kirby head of school Christy Hutton said the private middle and high school is now eyeing a Jan. 20 return to campus after an initial buffer of distance learning following winter break with a decision expected Jan. 8.

Vaccine availability for teachers is also factoring into the decision for the private school, Hutton said via email.

For public schools, union support isn’t the only obstacle for local schools. Santa Cruz County’s unadjusted 7-day case rate is above the threshold in Newsom’s plan, at about 43 per 100,000 residents.

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Newsom’s framework also includes oversight, testing, and PPE requirements that schools would need to meet to reopen. And it gives local health officials a five-day window to object to a particular school’s reopening plan.

Announcing the plan Wednesday morning, Newsom lamented the toll he said distance learning is taking on California’s youngest students in particular.

“Kids are learning,” Newsom said. “They’re just not learning all equally, particularly our youngest children.”

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Contributing: Mallory Pickett