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September 18, 2021

News West

West Coast News Network

Newsom strikes deal to reopen California schools amid COVID

Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democratic legislative leaders will announce an agreement Monday to give school districts $2 billion to open schools for students in transitional kindergarten through second grade by April 1, focusing on California’s youngest children after almost a year of distance learning.

The negotiations wrapped up over the weekend, according to sources close to both the governor and the Legislature who confirmed its basic components.

The plan, sources said, provides financial incentives to school districts that offer in-person instruction in counties with fewer than 25 new daily confirmed coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents, a threshold almost all California counties currently meet as the winter’s rapid spread of the virus had slowed.

School districts seeking funds from counties in the state’s red tier, with seven or fewer cases per 100,000 residents, would be required to extend classroom learning to all elementary school students and at least one grade of middle or high school.

But the proposal, expected to receive a vote in both houses of the Legislature this week, stops short of mandating that schools across the state must reopen. Instead, it leaves the final decision up to local education officials and, in some areas, subject to agreements between districts and the unions representing school employees.

The deal marks the completion of weeks of negotiations at the state Capitol and merges current public health guidelines with earlier school reopening proposals introduced by the governor and lawmakers. For Newsom, the proposal envisions students back on campus a full two months later than he had promised in the plan he offered in late December. Lawmakers objected to his original effort’s requirement for schools to submit lengthy applications for the money and balked at some of the early details over community public health standards.

But the fiercest debate over reopening more school classrooms centered on whether to promise COVID-19 vaccinations to educators. Newsom, who initially balked at new guarantees, relented last month and set aside 10% of the state’s weekly vaccine doses for teachers and school staff beginning this week.

Public health officials said Monday the state is on course to surpass Newsom’s initial estimate of providing at least 75,000 weekly vaccine doses. And Los Angeles Unified School district officials have announced they expect enough vaccinations to reopen campuses by April 9 — a week later than the new statewide plan for opening classrooms.

The legislation says vaccinating teachers and staff is not a precondition for a district to return to in-person learning, a mandate demanded by the California Teachers Assn.

Union leaders also failed to block Newsom’s push to broadly reopen schools in the state’s most restrictive purple tier of cases in counties. State officials are expected to update the tiers Tuesday. As of last week, all but two California counties had case rates that would allow TK-second grade students to return to their classrooms.

The plan relies on financial incentives to get more campuses to open in the spring. School districts in counties that meet the virus threshold and do not open by April 1 would lose 1% of their share of the $2 billion in reopening funds for each school day that distance learning is the only option that’s offered. Schools that are currently open or have plans to reopen before the end of March would be allowed to go forward with their respective reopening and still qualify for the funding.

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