On Wednesday, Governor Gavin Newsom announced in a $2 billion plan to reopen schools across California beginning in February, with all grades expected to be back in classrooms by the spring.
The plan, known as the Safe Schools for All Plan, would allow grades to return to public schools in different phases, beginning with younger grades. Kindergarten through second grade children would be the priority grades to come back first, along with students disproportionally impacted by the pandemic such as special education students, foster students, low-income students, and those learning English. This would be followed by grades 3 through 6 being phased in, with all grades K-12 returning to public schools no later than early spring 2021.
Schools themselves will be able to reopen once a COVID-19 safety plan is approved by state and local officials, and that the county of the school needs to have a seven-day average case rate of under 28 cases per 100,000 per day.
“The idea is to take grades K through six, with special education and disproportionally affected populations by this pandemic, but also more broadly impacted by a series of issues better defined in this state,” said Governor Newsom during the press conference on Wednesday. “We also want to improve our efforts to get everybody moving in a similar direction to be back on track, across the spectrum by early spring of 2021.”
Governor Newsom also highlighted the four “pillars” of the planned reopening.
The first pillar, funding, would come in through the $2 billion being funneled into the plan, equaling out to around $450 per student for in-person instruction, with variances in the amount given per students based on if they are low-income, are foster youth, or if they are learning English.
Safety and mitigation was also highlighted as an important factor, requiring frequent testing for students and staff, with weekly testing being required for schools with high transmission rates of COVID-19. All students and staff will have to wear masks, with schools themselves being on-boarded onto the School Portal for Outbreak Tracking (SPOT) contract tracing service in case of any outbreak. School staff will also receive vaccination priority next year.
Safe Schools for All will also have an oversight plan as another pillar, with state education and health agencies such as the Department of Public Health (CDPH) and Cal/OSHA coming together to help schools develop and implement their COVID-19 Safety Plans.
The last pillar, transparency and accountability, will allow the public to see where schools are currently in their reopening plans, what school transmission rates are, and generally if it is safe for kids there.
The return of in-class instruction
Altogether, the state’s plan is pushing for classes to resume in schools statewide as long as COVID-19 rates continue to go down.
“As a parent of very young children, in-person instruction, there’s just no substitute for it,” said Newsom of bringing back in-person learning. “It’s just so much more difficult for a 4-year-old to focus on a device than a 14-year-old.”
Newsom also added that the lower risks and increased benefits from having in-person instruction would have a positive effect on students, especially younger students.
Many teacher reacted positively to the news while also noting that they wouldn’t think to go back unless masks were on at all times.
“Having students back in school is so important,” said Long Beach second grade teacher Monica Fernandez. “But we have to make sure it’s safe for everyone first. This plan seems to address that. But the approved school plans have to fill in all the details teachers are still concerned about. For example, we can’t have ‘mask breaks’ anymore. A lot of teachers nationwide have been giving ‘mask breaks’ to students to have a few minutes not wearing one during the day when it isn’t lunch. We cannot allow things like that, and we need rules that say that can’t happen.
“But, you know, kids need to come back for their education, we need to come back to teach better, and I’m sure parents would like their kids back at well. As long as it’s done safely you’ll be hard-pressed to find a teacher against this.”
Teachers and staff noted that being high on the list to receive the COVID-19 vaccine would help the transition and would make many teachers more willing to continue in-class instruction.
“There’s no question that the vaccine, when it’s available, will be a game-changer,” said state Superintendent Tony Thurmond on Wednesday. “But until the doses are available, it seems to me that there’s nothing more important than robust COVID testing and contact tracing.”
During the conference, Newsom also addressed possible issues, such as schools not complying with the new state rules or schools needing more time to to instruct students properly. The Governor responded by saying that schools would be disciplined in some way by the state and that the school year might be extended to make up for lost in-class time.
More details on initial K-2 grade in-class returns are expected to be released early next month in anticipation of a February start.