Newsom proposes $2B to start reopening California's K-2 classrooms in February
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday proposed allocating $2 billion in state funds to reopen California's kindergarten through second grade classrooms for in-person instruction starting in February.
Additionally, in-person classrooms would open for other students who are disproportionately impacted by distance learning such as special education students, children in foster care, children experiencing homelessness, and other students who need extra support.
Newsom said his goal is to make in-person learning available for even more students by spring 2021 by phasing in additional grade levels, though virtual learning will continue to be an option.
“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.
Newsom's proposal comes as California's COVID-19 case rate continues to grow and overwhelm hospitals, most notable in Southern California. Cases are expected to grow in January as a result of holiday gatherings.
The funds would go toward increased COVID-19 testing, personal protective equipment for staff and students, contact tracing to track cases within schools, and vaccinations for teachers and staff. The funding distribution, which works out to be about $450 per student, will be weighted for schools serving students from low-income families, English learners and other disproportionately impacted student populations.
Newsom said most students are currently learning via a virtual classroom, but not all students "are learning equally."
About half of U.S. students are attending virtual-only schools, USA Today reported.
The consequences are most dire for low-income and minority children, who are more likely to be learning remotely and less likely to have appropriate technology and home environments for independent study compared with their wealthier peers. Children with disabilities and those learning English have particularly struggled in the absence of in-class instruction. Many of those students were already lagging academically before the pandemic. Now, they're even further behind — with time running out to meet key academic benchmarks.
Newom asked the California Legislature to take "immediate action" on the proposal in January.
Under the governor's proposal, kindergarten through second-grade classrooms would be allowed to reopen in California counties with an average weekly case rate of less than 28 cases per 100,000 people per day. Schools in those areas that choose to reopen would be required to maintain safety guidelines including requiring all students and staff to wear masks. Staff would be required to wear surgical masks provided by the state, and staff would also be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines.
Additionally, each school would be required to routinely test students and staff for COVID-19 under requirements based on its county's rate of coronavirus transmission. Schools in counties with high case rates would need to provide weekly asymptomatic testing. For schools in counties in the least restrictive tiers of the state's color-coded, four-tier reopening plan, only symptomatic testing and response testing would be required. The state plans to assist schools in accessing tests.
Schools that are open across the nation and have not required any safety measures have seen 2.5x more COVID-19 outbreaks than those that required safety precautions, Newsom said.
“Early in the pandemic, we saw schools as high-risk congregate settings, because students and teachers spend a lot of time together in the same rooms and then go back into the community, and we didn’t know yet how exactly the virus spreads and who is most at risk”, said Ashish K. Jha, Brown University School of Public Health dean, in a statement.
However, as more was learned about the virus and as schools began re-opening, Jha said researchers found "no evidence" that schools were driving significant community spread.
"With the right controls in place, schools can even maintain lower infection rates than the community," he said.
All Californians will be able to monitor in-school transmission data on an online state dashboard. A web-based hotline will also allow staff, parents and students to report specific COVID-19 safety concerns. The state's Safe Schools for All Team will respond to those complaints and provide intervention at schools to ensure compliance.
Under California's current school guidelines issued in May, schools are already required to develop and implement plans that lay out safety precautions if they want to open.
Schools that are located in purple tier counties had the option to apply for waivers to resume in-person learning in elementary grades already. Currently, 1,731 elementary schools throughout the state have a waiver that allows in-person learning.
USA Today contributed to this report.
Desert Sun reporter Nicole Hayden covers health in California. She can be reached at Nicole.Hayden@desertsun.com or (760) 778-4623. Follow her on Twitter @Nicole_A_Hayden