SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom released a plan Wednesday for schools to resume in-person teaching next spring, starting with the youngest students and those who have struggled most with distance learning while assisting with $2 billion in state aid for coronavirus testing, personal protective equipment and increased classroom ventilation.
"Safety is key. Just reopening a school for in-person instruction on its own is not going to address the issue of safety," Newsom said, promising sanctions for schools that don’t follow safety rules.
Yet "in-person instruction ... is our default," he said, citing pitfalls from remote learning including increased anxiety, depression and undetected child abuse.
The president of California’s largest teachers union said he was glad Newsom is "finally recognizing" the need for tougher safety standards as part of any reopening plan. California Teachers Association president E. Toby Boyd said he hopes the formal guidelines Newsom intends to release next week "will create a coherent statewide plan rather than creating more confusion for parents and school districts."
Newsom, a Democrat, said his administration has been in talks with the influential teachers unions for months and has a "very, very constructive relationship" with the powerful bargaining units.
The administration's pledge to provide frequent testing and contact tracing when outbreaks occur will be crucial to making teachers feel comfortable again in the classroom, said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.
California Federation of Teachers President Jeff Freitas noted Newsom’s promised state funding, vaccines for educators and priority on safety, calling it “the starting point our state and its schools need to consider for in-person instruction.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert, echoed Newsom’s contention that schools can be opened safely, noting in an online briefing what he called an “almost counter-intuitive” finding that schools “seem to be doing better when it comes to the level of infection” than the community at large.
“If you really want to get society back to some form of normality, one of the first things you have to do is to get the children back in school,” Fauci said.
Many schools are already offering in-person classes, even with surging coronavirus cases, and there have been few outbreaks, said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education and an emeritus Stanford University education professor. More than 1,730 schools have received state waivers to reopen classrooms.
“Even in places of high rates of transmission, they are going to school safely,” she said.
Newsom said his recommendation was driven by increasing evidence that there are lower risks and increased benefits from in-person instruction particularly for the youngest students. It comes amid increased pressure from parents to reopen campuses.
Though California remains consumed by a growing pandemic crisis, he and Darling-Hammond said it’s realistic to expect many schools to start reopening as early as February or March.
Newsom called for a phased approach focusing first on those in transitional kindergarten through second grade, as well as children with disabilities, those who have limited access to technology at home and kids who have most struggled with distance learning.
Other grades would be phased in during the spring, but remote learning would continue to be allowed if parents and students wish, and for those who have health vulnerabilities that make it risky to return to the classroom.
The $2 billion Newsom will recommend in his budget next week averages out to $450 per pupil, weighted up to $750 at schools with more vulnerable populations.
Reaction among state legislators broke along party lines, with GOP Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, one of Newsom’s harshest critics, saying the plan "slightly moves the needle in the right direction" but creates more complexity for reopening. The Democratic leaders of the Assembly and Senate education committees pledged to work with Newsom, with Sen. Connie Leyva calling his plan “a positive step forward.”
Newsom said he also will work with state lawmakers on ways to help students recover from learning losses.
"It would be a mistake to say that this is a lost year," said Thurmond. "This is a year where we are preserving life, where we are surviving."
Among the safety measures in Newsom's proposal are universal wearing of masks, increased contact tracing during outbreaks, frequent virus testing for all students and staff, and prioritizing educators for vaccinations.
Dr. Naomi Bardach, a University of California, San Francisco pediatrician and expert on school safety, will lead a team of state health, education and occupational safety officials to help develop safety plans.