Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature have struck a deal to accelerate the reopening of school campuses by moving up the deadline to send the youngest students back to class in March. They also are adding $2 billion in incentives and removing obstacles that districts had complained were standing in their way.

Newsom and legislative leaders announced the framework on Monday. It provides some of the key elements that Newsom had been pressing for during more than a month of protracted negotiations.

The deal also settles details for an additional $4.6 billion in one-time state funding that Newsom had proposed in his state budget for districts to spend coping with the harm from COVID-19 on students’ learning and mental health. That money, which enable can be spent though the next fiscal year, will be released with the $2 billion.

The terms

Under the terms, by April 1, districts must open kindergarten through second grade classrooms in order to receive their share of the $2 billion in incentive funding. They also must bring back to school cohorts of students in all grades most harmed by the pandemic.  These include homeless and foster youth, English learners, chronically absent students and students without access to the internet and students with disabilities.

This provision will apply to all districts, including those in the “purple tier,” the most restrictive level under the state’s four-tier system governing business and community activities, provided the daily average rate of COVID-19 infections is below 25 positive cases per 100,000 county residents.

Districts must then reopen all elementary grades and at least one grade in middle school and one in high school, once COVID-19 infection levels in their county decline to the “red tier,” the second-most restrictive level. Currently, only 11 of the state’s 58 counties, mainly rural counties, are in red or orange, the next level down. However, Newsom said at a news conference Monday that he expects counties with the majority of students will move from a more restrictive tier to the red tier by April 1.

Under the current state guidelines, middle and high schools may open in the red tier. Under the deal, they must at least partially reopen, either full-day or in a hybrid model, to get the extra money.

Newsom said he is confident that once schools build confidence by reopening for a few grades, the momentum will build for more students and additional grades. “Once you dip your toe in, once you build a cohort confidently, once you build trust,” he said, parents will be less reluctant to send their children back and teachers less hesitant to go back.

After April 1, districts will lose 1% per day of their potential funding until they reopen campuses. Districts that don’t open by May 15 will lose eligibility for funding.

Many school districts already had been moving toward reopening early grades this month, and the deal will pressure remaining districts and unions to settle quickly to take advantage of the funding and respond to growing pressure by some parents to reopen now.  Unions is some districts have said employees would not return until COVID-19 infections fall to “orange,” the tier below red.

Teacher vaccinations

COVID-19 vaccinations have been a point of contention. The California Teachers Association and employee unions in Los Angeles Unified and other large districts have taken the position that teachers need to be fully immunized, with two shots and a two-week incubation period, before setting foot in a classroom.

Newsom has expedited vaccinations for school staff, and those intending to go back should be at least partially vaccinated by April 1. But full vaccinations will not be feasible for most teachers.

The wording of the deal between Newsom and legislative leaders, which will take the form of legislation, specifically will state that vaccinations are not a prerequisite for reopening schools.

* Story originally published by EdSource.