Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday announced a $2 billion phased plan to reopen public schools for in-person learning statewide that may include prioritizing educators for vaccines.
Newsom said the plan would include extensive testing protocols, contact tracing, funding for necessary safety materials and enforcement of basic mitigation techniques such as mask-wearing and social distancing. Funding has been a major barrier to public schools such as the San Francisco Unified School District, which has estimated up to $44.8 million total would be needed for reopening even as it faces a $169.7 million deficit over the next two fiscal years.
The governor also announced that he “anticipated” educators would be formally approved as part of the second wave of vaccine recipients, which would directly follow the cohort of health care workers currently receiving their doses.
“The point of emphasis here is that 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.”
Elementary schools, special education programs and institutions within communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and the subsequent change to distance learning will be part of the state’s first phase of in-person learning. Officials hope some could open as early as February or March 2021.
SFUSD recently said it would not be able to begin bringing students back to classrooms on Jan. 25 as planned, and pinned the blame for the delay on the lack of labor agreements. Oakland and Los Angeles districts have also indefinitely postponed plans to reopen in January, but attributed it to the current coronavirus surge.
The California State Schools for All Plan mirrors the state’s tiered COVID-19 reopening plan. It includes funding that shakes out to an average of $450 per pupil to be used for COVID-19-related materials. SFUSD had 51,898 students enrolled this fall.
The plan includes a state-supported testing scheme that requires various testing frequencies based on a given county’s COVID risk tier and seeks to cover the cost of 58 percent of students through Medicaid; a team of contact tracers that will be deployed as needed by the state; and a mask mandate for all students and a requirement for teachers to wear surgical masks that will be provided to them at no cost.
It will also include an increased commitment to enforcement, accountability and transparency in the form of a cross-agency team, led by Dr. Naomi Bardach from the University of California San Francisco, and a web-based hotline for parents and teachers.
United Educators of San Francisco President Susan Solomon said the vaccine prioritization for educators and staff alike, as well as weekly testing for staff and students, is promising and could make a big difference as safety protocols are still negotiated among all district unions. The $2 billion in funding is welcome, but Solomon questioned why it wasn’t offered earlier.
“We have been talking since the beginning about how not having the support is a failure of the government at every level,” Solomon said. “We could have, perhaps, gotten something done earlier. It’s shameful that an urban school district with over 50,000 students doesn’t have enough funding.”
Public Education Superintendent Tony Thurmond emphasized the need for the state to remain diligent in keeping students and educators safe until vaccines have arrived. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution earlier this month urging educators to be prioritized for vaccines.
“Until the doses are available, it seems to me that there’s nothing more important than robust contact tracing and COVID testing,” Thurmond said.
To even consider reopening, counties must have a seven-day positive test rate below 28 cases per 100,000 people per day. Once they reach this threshold, school districts must submit a safe re-opening plan to state and local officials, who then have five days to deny the application.
Once schools have returned to classroom learning, officials will “have a responsibility” to monitor safety practices and provide support to make sure these environments can be secure for students, staff and families. Private schools that have reopened with waivers are allowed to continue in-person learning despite the stay-at-home orders.
Distance learning will remain an option for all students to ensure anyone who might have unique circumstances themselves or within their household are not required to go back to school before they’re comfortable doing so.
Officials on Wednesday highlighted the toll that distance learning has undoubtedly taken on many students, with some suffering more than others as a result of the switch. Thurmond said the process of “offsetting learning gaps” will be an absolute priority, but that 2020 has by no means been “a wasted year” because distance learning has been essential to saving lives.
California continues to be in a statewide stay-at-home order. There were 30,921 new COVID-19 cases on Dec. 19, trending below the seven-day average of 36,295, which officials say could signal a plateau.
There has been a 34 percent increase in COVID-19 hospital admissions over the last 14 days, with the lowest intenstive care unit vacancies appearing in the Central Valley and Southern California.
The Bay Area has hovered around a 9 percent ICU capacity, public health director Dr. Grant Colfax said Tuesday. Newsom said to expect an update on the ongoing shelter-in-place order in this region next week.
Meanwhile, nearly 301,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered statewide.