California governor offers schools plan amid record deaths

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom released a plan for schools to resume in-person teaching next spring, even as he somberly announced 432 additional deaths, a state record for a single day’s reporting but a figure that likely includes lagging death reports from the Christmas holiday.

Newsom envisions restarting broad classroom teaching with the youngest students and those who have struggled most with distance learning, while promising $2 billion in state aid to promote coronavirus testing, increased ventilation in classrooms and personal protective equipment.

“Safety is key. Just reopening a school for in-person instruction on its own is not going to address the issue of safety,” Newsom said, promising sanctions if schools don’t follow safety rules. Yet “in-person instruction … is our default,” he said, citing pitfalls from remote learning including increases in anxiety, depression and undetected child abuse.

California Teachers Association president E. Toby Boyd said he was glad Newsom is “finally recognizing” the need for tougher safety standards as part of any reopening plan, but he said the governor’s outline leaves “many unanswered questions … particularly as it relates to implementation and execution.”

Boyd said he hopes the formal guidelines Newsom said would be released next week “will create a coherent statewide plan rather than creating more confusion for parents and school districts.”

Newsom, a Democrat, said his administration had been in talks for months and has a “very, very constructive relationship” with the powerful bargaining units.

“There’s a lot of incentives (to return to the classroom) because our teaches love teaching,” Newsom said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said the administration’s pledge to provide frequent testing and contact tracing when outbreaks occur will be crucial to making teachers feel comfortable again in the classroom.

Many schools are already offering in-person classes with few virus outbreaks, said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education and an emeritus Stanford University education professor.

More than 1,730 schools already have state waivers to reopen classrooms based on earlier guidelines, Newsom said. Seventeen of the state’s 58 counties are offering mostly remote teaching, while the remainder have some mix of in-person or hybrid education.

Newsom said his recommendation was driven by increasing evidence that there are lower risks and increased benefits from in-person instruction particularly for the youngest students. It comes amid increased pressure on schools to reopen campuses.

The proposal comes as California remains consumed by a growing pandemic crisis including record deaths.

The statewide transmission rate has fallen to the point where one infected person is in turn infecting just one other individual, a development that Newsom called encouraging while warning that rates in Central and Southern California remain much higher and the trend could reverse from holiday gatherings.

It’s nonetheless realistic to expect many schools to start reopening as early as February or March, said Newsom and Darling-Hammond.

“Even in places of high rates of transmission, they are going to school safely.” she said.

Newsom called for a phased approach focusing first on those in transitional kindergarten through second grade, as well as children with disabilities, those who have limited access to technology at home and those who he said “have struggled more than most with distance learning.”

Other grades would be phased in during the spring, but remote learning would continue to be allowed if parents and students wish, and for those who have health vulnerabilities that make it risky to return to the classroom.

The $2 billion Newsom will recommend in his budget next week averages out to $450 per pupil, weighted up to $750 per pupil at schools with more vulnerable populations. Schools will have to pay for tests if the money is available, but Newsom said he is lobbying the federal government to cover the cost.

The proposed funding comes on top of $5.3 billion from the state and $1.47 billion from the federal government to help schools.

Newsom said he also will work with state lawmakers next year on ways to help students recover from whatever learning losses they experienced this year, including with extended or more flexible school years and aid with tutoring.

“It would be a mistake to say that this is a lost year,” said Thurmond. “This is a year where we are preserving life, where we are surviving.”

Among the safety measures in Newsom’s proposal are frequent testing for all students and staff — up to weekly testing in areas with high rates of virus transmission. All students and staffs should have masks, there should be increased contact tracing for those who test positive for the virus, and he backed making school staff a priority for vaccinations.

Dr. Naomi Bardach, a University of California, San Francisco, pediatrician and expert on school safety, will lead what Newsom is calling a Safe Schools for All Team composed of state health, education and occupational safety representatives. He said the team will help schools with their safety plans and provide support materials for educators.

The state will also have a website where parents and students can see their school’s reopening status, state funding, and any school outbreaks. It will also have a way for educators and parents to report any problems or concerns, which he said will allow the state to impose what his office called “escalating levels of intervention beginning with technical assistance and ending with legal enforcement.”

Max Arias, executive director of SEIU Local 99 representing school workers, said in a statement that “in-person instruction is irreplaceable” particularly for students with learning challenges like those who are homeless, poor or in foster care.

“This is an urgent and growing problem, and it affects Black and Brown children disproportionately,” he said, praising the emphasis on safety.

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Associated Press reporters John Antczak in Los Angeles and Olga Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed to this story.

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