By David M. Greenwald
COVID cases are down across the country, vaccines are slowly but surely getting distributed, and now the California legislature is looking at a bill—SB 86, the “Safe and Open Schools plan,” which would send vulnerable students back to in-person instruction by mid-April while making COVID vaccinations available to onsite teachers and staff.
SB 86 would allocate nearly $6.6 billion in state funds to schools, $2 billion of which must be used to reopen schools for in-person instruction, with an additional $6 billion in federal funds also distributed.
Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco and chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, said Thursday in a call with reporters that this fits with the timelines and goals laid out by the president and governor.
“The timeframe … also appeared to fit within when districts could get bargaining done for the COVID health and safety plans, to make sure that discussions were happening with all the different school employees, as well as being able to give them enough time to have the proper PPE, do whatever they needed to do with the various facilities as students, teachers and staff were coming back,” he said.
Newsom in a statement released late on Thursday said, “Since the first week of this year, the Legislature has had before it our Administration’s plan to accelerate and support school reopenings for our youngest students—as safely and quickly as possible.”
He indicated, “While the Legislature’s proposal represents a step in the right direction, it doesn’t go far enough or fast enough. I look forward to building on the growing momentum to get our schools open and continuing discussions with the Legislature to get our kids back in school as safely and quickly as possible.”
The announcement comes a week after Yolo County Public Health Officer Aimee Sisson told the Board of Supervisors that she believes elementary school students can safely return to school now while junior high and high school must wait, as must high school athletics, which involve close contact and thus continue to pose significant health risks.
Sisson told the board, “(For) our youngest students, transitional kindergarten through sixth grade, those schools can reopen for in-person instruction and they can do so safely.
“There are many reasons to get our kids back in school,” Sisson said. “One is the learning loss that’s occurring as they are doing distance learning.”
She added, “Getting kids back in school, we’ve seen reduced anxiety and depression. So I would argue that our focus in the short term should be getting … the youngest kids back in the classroom.”
Senator Bill Dodd issued a statement largely in favor of re-opening with the emphasized need for safety.
“Schools must safely reopen, as soon as possible,” Sen. Dodd said. “Many districts around the state have already done so, and with the increasing number of people being vaccinated, it is clearly the right thing to do. Prioritizing teachers is important, but it should not hold up our progress.
“Allowing our children to continue their education is essential for their well-being, to achieve equity and for the overall economy. I appreciate the governor’s efforts to push forward reopening, and we need all stakeholders to step up to make it happen without undue delay.”
Senate Leader Toni Atkins of San Diego added, “Here are two truths—California’s students need to get back in the classroom, and there is no easy solution to getting them there in the midst of the pandemic.”
She said, “These bills move us closer, and build on the Governor’s framework based on feedback that we’ve heard from parents, students, and school employees, including teachers. They keep the conversation going, both in the Legislature and with the Governor. We all share the same goal—to get students back into school safely.”
“We need to do all we can to get campuses open safely, and keep them open.
Under SB 86, all schools would offer optional in-person instruction to vulnerable groups of students by April 15. Further, schools in counties that are in the red tier or better would be required to offer in-person instruction to all students in K-6 by April 15.
Schools can open prior to that date so long as they are in the red tier, but if school districts choose not to reopen by April, they will forfeit their share of state funding.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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