Elementary students line up outside a school to have their temperature checked. (Photo by Allison Shelley for Alliance for Excellent Education/Flickr)

California launched a $2 billion initiative Wednesday to support safely resuming in-person classes in the state’s public school system amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The “Safe Schools for All” plan will focus on reopening schools in February for students in transitional kindergarten through second grade and progressing into higher grades later into the spring, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday in a briefing on the plan.

The funding equates to roughly $450 per student, according to Newsom, and will support testing of school staff and students, personal protective equipment, contact tracing and vaccinations.

“Safety is key,” Newsom said. “Just reopening a school for in-person instruction on its own is not going to address the issue of safety. We have to focus on these mitigation steps, we have to focus on accountability.”

Many schools across the state have resumed in-person classes in recent months in some form or for certain groups like special needs students.

The state allowed schools to resume in-person classes once their county had been out of the purple tier – the most restrictive in the county’s four-tiered pandemic reopening plan – for at least two weeks.

Those schools were allowed to continue holding in-person classes even after the state issued its regional stay-at home order for roughly 80 percent of California’s counties.

As of November, schools 41 counties were holding in-person classes to some extent, according to Newsom, while schools in the remaining 17 were mostly holding classes online.

“Kids are learning,” Newsom said. “They’re just not learning all equally, particularly our youngest children.”

Newsom and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said the new plan is intended to address the disparities from county to county, school district to school district and campus to campus by ensuring testing and protective equipment are readily available to students and staff.

“We know that many families – foster families, homeless families, English learners, free- and reduced-lunch families – have been impacted in different ways,” Thurmond said.

“So we’ll be continuing our work … to make sure that kids are connected to their schools, that they have access to the resources that they need to be successful,” he said.

Test frequency will depend on which tier a school’s county falls into, according to Newsom.

TK-12 schools in counties that are in the least-restrictive yellow and orange tiers will have testing available for symptomatic students and staff as well as those who may have been exposed.

In the higher red and purple tiers, testing will also be required every two weeks for asymptomatic people. If a county’s rate of new cases per 100,000 people exceeds 14, testing will be required weekly.

All students and staff will also be required to wear a face covering, with staff required to wear surgical masks, specifically.

California Teachers Association President E. Toby Boyd expressed appreciation for the state taking educators’ concerns into account when drafting the plan, but suggested it is not yet airtight.

“In all our conversations and letters sent, we have been calling for tougher safety standards, rigorous and consistent testing, data collection and transparency,” Boyd said in a statement.

“While these tenets are addressed in the proposal released Wednesday, there are many unanswered questions and the devil is always in the details, particularly as it relates to implementation and execution,” he said.

Teachers are expected to be prioritized for coronavirus vaccinations, which Bay Area lawmakers, doctors and education advocates have pleaded for in recent weeks as the vaccine has rolled out to health care workers and residents in long-term care facilities.

Under the state’s current vaccination timeline, teachers and childcare workers will begin receiving the vaccine next month along with people over age 75 or age 65 if they have underlying health conditions, workers in emergency services, food and agriculture, transportation and logistics, manufacturing and the industrial, residential and commercial sectors.

Dr. Naomi Bardach, a pediatrician with the University of California at San Francisco, is expected to oversee the school reopening process along with officials from the California Department of Public Health, Cal/OSHA and the state’s education agencies.

Newsom said the oversight team is intended to both ensure schools are operating safely as well as offering in-person and virtual resources to teachers and schools that are concerned about transmission of the virus.

“We want to be more present,” Newsom said. “We want to be more proximate to the concerns and also the opportunities for improvement.”

Boyd said the union plans to continue working with state officials to improve or tweak the plan if necessary.

“This must be a joint effort to ensure a safe return to our classrooms where we know our students learn best and thrive,” he said.