Jordan Ribon, 9, left, arrives at her school with her father, Tom Rincan, and 4-year-old brother Dylan Rincan at James H. Cox Elementary School in Fountain Valley. (Photo by Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/Polaris, via EdSource)

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “Safe Schools for All” plan presented during the waning days of 2020 has raised hopes that more schools could reopen for in-person instruction this school year, at least for the state’s youngest children.

The goal, Newsom explained, is “to support all communities to be on track for safe in-person instruction by early spring 2021.”

Yet the outlook for that happening appears daunting. What challenges do districts face in jump-starting in person instruction? Here are the principle ones:

COVID-19 spreading across the state

Even those most vigorously arguing that returning to school presents relatively few risks to children acknowledge that it should be done within the context of containing the spread of the virus in the larger community.

But the virus is surging in California, reaching crisis levels in many parts of the states. What’s more, several countries that were often held up as models for what California, and the United States, should be doing, have shut their schools, most notably the United Kingdom. Germany also has closed its schools for a month, at least until mid-January, as have other countries such as the Netherlands and South Korea.

Not helping the situation is the detection of a new more contagious strain of the virus.

All this is likely to make more parents, in addition to school staff, more apprehensive about coming back to school for in-person instruction. It also presents a contradictory messaging problem for the state and schools: ordering families to stay home and not mix with other families or households for any reason — and simultaneously saying it is OK for them to return to school to interact with children and adults from multiple households, indoors, for hours each day.

The disadvantage of low-income districts 

In an extraordinarily critical letter to Newsom, the superintendents of some of the state’s largest school districts (Los Angeles, San Diego, Long Beach, San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento) expressed concerns that districts like theirs serving predominantly low-income communities, where infection rates are far higher, would not qualify for funds under Newsom’s plan. That’s because infection rates are higher than the level set by Newsom (a daily average of 28 positive cases per 100,000 residents). “A funding model which supports only schools in communities less impacted by the virus is at odds with California’s long-standing efforts to provide more support to students from low-income families,” they said. “If nothing changes, many students in high-need communities are at risk of being left behind.”

Logistics and costs of testing for COVID-19

Newsom’s reopening plan calls for testing everyone in a school — both school staff and students — including those who are asymptomatic. It says they must be tested every two weeks if the school is in a county in the purple tier, with infection rates of less than a daily average of less than 14 positive cases per 100,000 residents. Those in counties with more than 14 positive cases — currently all but two counties — would have to be tested every week.

School administrators worry about the logistics and costs of such a comprehensive testing program. Newsom says that private insurance plans would cover the costs of those who are insured, or MediCal. Fortunately, all but 3.6% of young people between 0 and 20 years have some form of health coverage in California, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But the logistics of making sure that all staff and students are tested on a regular basis remain daunting, even if most of the costs are covered by MediCal, SCHIP, or individual health plans. The superintendents of the urban districts also say that the state funds should be provided to districts directly to cover the costs of testing, rather than rely on what they called a “state-directed testing model which is not yet operational.”

Buy-in from teachers unions

Gov. Newsom’s plan requires school districts to get support from teachers unions before they can reopen, which means that reopening plans would have to be negotiated with teachers district by district. But taking issue with a central element of Newsom’s plan, the CTA is saying that schools shouldn’t open for in-person instruction in counties that are still in the purple tier. Given that all but two counties (Alpine and Sierra) are currently in the purple zone, making concrete plans for reopening schools will be difficult without assurances that teachers will agree to participate.

Shortage of teacher substitutes and other staff

A big unknown for some districts is whether they will have the staff they need to provide in-person instruction — in addition to distance learning for children whose parents wish to stick with remote instruction. More teachers are expected to call in sick because of having to quarantine or sequester after exposure or possible exposure to the virus. In some districts, teachers at greater risk may choose to take a leave rather than take the chance of exposure in the classroom. Typically, these vacancies could be filled by substitute teachers. The problem is that even before the pandemic many districts were experiencing difficulties finding substitutes. In fact, there has been a precipitous decline in the number of substitute credentials issued in California. As reported by EdSource, over a six-month period in 2020, there were 22,236 applicants for substitute credentials. That was down from 31,871 for the same period in 2019, and 42,300 in 2018.

The problem is especially acute in rural areas where the shortages are most severe. The situation is so bad that Tim Taylor, executive director of the Small School Districts’ Association, describes the substitute shortage as “a code-red issue” for rural schools.

Another challenge is that implementing health and safety practices could require additional non-teaching staff. Scott Borba, superintendent of the Le Grand Union Elementary School District in Merced County, for example, says his district needs more custodians to sanitize school facilities.

Slow pace of vaccinations, with school employees not yet on the priority list

The availability of vaccines could make a big difference in convincing school staff to return to school, as well as to parents who for health reasons may be reluctant to have their children back in school.

But there are numerous unknowns regarding both the pace of vaccinations, and who will be receiving them. It seems certain that teachers and other school employees will soon be placed on the priority list (Phase 1B) to receive the vaccinations. But it is unclear when that would happen, whether the state will set a list of priorities for which school employees should be vaccinated first, and whether this will happen quickly enough to open schools this spring.

Uncertainties about state and federal funds to cover education and health costs

Currently, it is not entirely clear how much money districts can expect to get from the state and federal governments to get them through this school year — and whether the federal government will come up with additional funds after Joe Biden becomes president. The Georgia runoff election results make it more likely that more funds will be forthcoming, but that won’t be known for weeks, at best. EdSource has come up with estimates about how much districts can expect to receive from the federal government’s $900 billion relief bill approved in September, but these are only estimates. When it comes to state funding, districts will have a clearer idea about where they stand after Gov. Newsom announces his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year this week.

Finding a pathway for in-person instruction for middle and high school students

Gov. Newsom’s plan does not provide a pathway for middle and high school students to return to school. In fact, it is silent on the issue. If state regulations are still in force, school communities would be limited in what they can do on infection rates in their counties coming into the red, orange or yellow tiers before middle or high school students could even be considered for in-person instruction. Because of the dire situation in the state now, it is impossible to predict whether that will occur in time for students and staff to return to school before May.

Overcoming divisions within school communities on in-person instruction 

The entire issue of reopening schools is an emotional one, with different people having different comfort levels and needs regarding in-person instruction. In some communities, some parents feel passionately about the need to get children back to school as soon as possible, while other parents feel just the opposite. In many districts, teachers have been especially reluctant to return to their classrooms, often leading to conflict and stressful negotiations about when or how they might return. Complicating the entire discussion is school officials don’t have much time to figure out the best way to get students back to school this academic year, even while they try to convince concerned parents and students that it is safe to do so.

Story originally published by EdSource.