On Thursday, a bill that would allocate $6.5 billion to help schools across California reopen for in-school learning was finally agreed upon by state legislators.
Senate Bill 86, authored by the Senate Committee on Budget and Fiscal Review, would replace a highly criticized $2 billion reopening proposal made by Governor Gavin Newsom in late December. School districts, teacher organizations, and parents alike blasted his plan for having strict reopening measures that would be brought out in grade-based phases, only giving money to schools that reopened, not addressing teacher and staff vaccinations, and not giving enough money to schools to properly tests students and faculty members for COVID-19.
SB 86, also known as the “Safe and Open Schools Plan” would over triple the amount of funding that Governor Newsom had proposed. With more funds available, county public health departments would be required to offer all teachers and other school staff who return to in-school classes vaccinations. Funding would also not be given based on who opens first beginning this month due to COVID-19 rates still being high in many high-population counties. Instead, all school would receive reopening funding as long as they meet the minimum requirement of offering in-person classes to vulnerable students such as English as a second language students, homeless students, those without computers, and foster students in grades K-6 by April 15th.
All schools would receive money to reopen in grades K-6 when county case rates drop below 7 out of 100,000.Vulnerable student groups would also receive funding regardless of grade level.
The bill also requires administrators of K-12 schools to report to a health officer of employees or students who tested positive for COVID-19 no later than 24 hours after being informed themselves.
Finally, all schools must adopt a labor union-approved COVID-19 safety plan by April 1st to be allowed to reopen this year.
Committee members wrote the bill after the high amount of criticism leveraged against the Newsom reopening plan. Legislators especially zeroed in on the reopening timeline, not wanting to force schools to reopen if they were not ready, just to receive funding.
“Here are two truths – California’s students need to get back in the classroom, and there is no easy solution to getting them there in the midst of the pandemic. These bills move us closer, and build on the governor’s framework,” Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) said on Thursday. “We all share the same goal – to get students back into school safely.”
Other legislators agreed with Senator Atkins’ reasoning, with many even promoting it for an early Budget Committee vote.
“It is our top priority to ensure that California kids can safely return to school soon and doing so will also help reopen our economy,” noted Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento).
Many schools expected to reopen in April under SB 86
As SB 86 dealt with many of the Newsom plan criticisms, little opposition has formed against the reopening bill, with members of both parties happy about reopening schools with the funds to safely do so by April.
“The common voice since last year has been to let the children back into school,” San Diego teacher Maria Cortez-Baum told the Globe. “Newsom’s plan, while loved for the February open, ultimately wasn’t good for anyone. It would have forced schools to fight over reopening funds and reopen before they were ready, or force some schools to not get funding because they erred on the side of caution. This way everyone gets funding, but schools who open sooner can get it sooner.”
“Plus teacher vaccinations. If we’re going to be in large groups all day, even with masks, we need them. Anyone who has been around kids will tell you that they can bring in illnesses easily. In COVID’s case it’s even scarier since they may not get it but still spread it. The bill really meets everyone’s concerns.”
SB 86 is expected to be fast tracked through voting due to the urgency of the dates in the bill.