Lucerne Valley Elementary in San Bernardino County reopened with extensive safety protocols. (Photo by Michael Burke/EdSource)

Gov. Gavin Newsom presented a $2 billion proposal for financial incentives Wednesday to prod school districts to bring back elementary school students for in-person instruction, starting in mid-February.

School districts would receive extra funding — from $450 to about $700 per student — if they agreed to a timetable for reopening schools, a rigorous regimen of testing both students and staff for the virus, and a strict health and safety plan that teachers and employee unions would have to consent to. Newsom said more details would be available with the state budget next week.

Districts would receive a minimum of $450 for every student in the district, plus additional money per student, based on the Local Control Funding Formula. It provides extra money for English learners, homeless, foster and low-income students.

Districts would receive the funding if they offered in-person instruction from transitional kindergarten (TK) to second grade in the first phase, starting Feb. 15, and for 3rd to 6th graders in the second phase, a month later. Districts would get full funding, regardless of how many parents decided to continue with distance learning. They would also have to agree to bring back small cohorts of students of all ages with the most needs, including homeless and foster children and students with disabilities, whom Newsom said have been disproportionately affected by the shift to distance learning.

He said his strategy is consistent with his administration’s position, which since summer has permitted waivers for TK through sixth grades for schools that are in the state’s Tier 1 “‘purple” list. As of this week, the state had approved 1,732 such waivers, many of them to private and parochial schools.

Under the new plan, districts with schools that already have physically reopened could continue to operate but they would need to meet the new testing requirements and have an updated safety plan negotiated with employee unions to receive the additional funding.

Asked during a press briefing whether the new funding would be enough to entice unions to agree to return within the next two months, Newsom said that teachers’ love of teaching would provide the motivation. “The greatest incentive is the inspiration that spark that led someone to want to contribute in such a profound and dignified way by educating the minds of the next generation,” he said. “So I don’t know that that needs to be much more impetus than that.”

CARES Act money

But he also pointed out that districts already have received nearly $7 billion in federal CARES Act money. Much of that funding must be K-12  spent by Dec. 31, however. Newsom did not mention the $6.8 billion for K-12 that California would also receive in 2021 from the COVID relief package that Congress approved before Christmas and President Trump signed into law this week.

The state would be offering districts a discounted rate of $55 per COVID test through the new testing lab in Valencia, which the state built in partnership with the diagnostics company PerkinElmer. Districts would get priority service, Newsom said. Districts would have to pick up additional non-lab costs which could be expensive, but Newsom indicated employees’ insurance and Medi-Cal would pick up part of the tab.

It’s unclear whether the additional funding, safety and testing requirements would  also help persuade teachers to return to school once they have been vaccinated for Covid. To meet the Feb. 15 reopening date for TK-2, school districts would need to complete labor negotiations and submit a safety plan by Feb. 1 for the first phase. Those deadlines would be subject to the state of the pandemic and infections rates that have soared this month.

‘Safe Schools for All Team’

On Wednesday Newsom also named Dr. Naomi Bardach, an associate professor of pediatrics and policy at UCSF, to head an inter-agency “Safe Schools for All Team.”  Newsom described her as “one of the leading experts on issues related to epidemiology and transmission of viruses in our public schools.”    

Bardach has been a prominent voice in arguing that with the right health and safety protocols it is safe to bring  especially elementary age students back to school.  

“We should put aside the specter of the 6-year-old viral vector still trying to figure out how to use a tissue, and realize that we can control transmission if we follow public health principles … on masking, physical distancing and more,” she wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times last fall. “This will require real money be spent on our chronically underfunded schools. But it can be done.”

In a statement Wednesday, CTA President E. Toby Boyd withheld support for Newsom’s plan pending more information while praising him for “finally recognizing what CTA, for months, has been advocating” for the return to in-person instruction: tighter safety standards, rigorous and consistent testing, data collection and transparency. But he reiterated his opposition to reopening any schools that fall in the purple tier.  

That position is at odds with Newsom’s proposal. The governor said that data and medical evidence support bringing back students in highly infected regions, as along as strict safety protocols are obeyed. Youngest students are less receptive to the virus, and there has been little transmission among students or to teachers in schools, he said.

Health and safety requirements

Newsom also has been getting considerable pressure from parent groups and some legislators to require school districts to reopen if they met a range of health and safety requirements. Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee, is the lead author of a bill that would require all school districts to adopt plans by March 1 laying out the return of students to school.

But Newsom said he has worked closely with legislative leaders. He singled out Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee and is a co-author of Ting’s Assembly Bill 10, and Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

Newsom would need quick Legislative approval of the $2 billion expenditure, which would be funded by Proposition 98, the formula that determines the portion of the state budget allotted to K-12 and community colleges. Because revenues so far this year have exceeded projections in the budget, despite the pandemic-precipitated recession, Newsom is expected to have a one-time windfall of around $15 billion in Prop. 98 in the next budget, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

In joint statement, superintendents of Los Angeles Unified and six other large urban districts said they welcomed Newsom’s efforts to make the reopening of public school classrooms a priority and would issue a lengthier comment next week. “It will take a coordinated effort at the state and local levels to reopen classrooms as soon as possible while protecting the health and safety of all in the school community,” they said. Superintendents of San Diego, Long Beach, Fresno, San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento City unified districts, with 1 million students, also signed on.

Story originally published by EdSource.