California lawmakers are expected to pass a new bill Thursday that would push -- though not require -- school districts across the state to reopen for in-person instruction by the end of March.
The duo of bills, SB 86 and AB 86, provides $2 billion to school districts to support reopening schools as part of a larger, $6.6 billion education funding package. The extra cash is meant to encourage districts to welcome teachers, students and staff back on campus, and can be used for anything from personal protective equipment and improving classroom ventilation to COVID-19 testing efforts.
The catch is that school districts have until March 31 to reopen in order to tap into the full funding. For every day that passes, starting April 1, school districts lose 1% of their share of the money, and forfeit all of the money if they fail to reopen prior to May 15.
While the bills stop short of compelling school districts to open by a firm deadline, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he expects "tremendous momentum" in school districts changing their tune and reopening for the first time since March last year.
"We want school districts to reopen, period, full stop. I've been saying it for months," Newsom said at a press conference Monday, March 1. "We believe they can safely reopen, we believe the data and the science bear that out."
Legislative leaders and Newsom reportedly struck a deal on the bill on Feb. 28, which seeks to end months of strained negotiations with labor groups and school organizations seeking a slower, more cautious approach to bringing back in-person instruction. The powerful California Teachers Association has previously advocated that no schools reopen in counties that are in the purple tier, California's designation for the worst regions when it comes to case rates, community spread and hospitalizations for COVID-19.
AB 86 and SB 86 take a different approach. To avoid losing state funding, school districts in the purple tier will be required to provide in-person instruction to young children -- transitional kindergarten through second grade -- by the end of March. Districts must also reopen for at-risk students in all grades, including English learners, homeless and foster youth, and students without a computer or an internet connection needed to participate in online instruction.
For counties in the red tier, the standards are much higher. Funding is contingent on elementary schools opening for kids at all grade levels, as well as one full grade level at the middle school and high school level. State health officials are expected to move Santa Clara County into the red tier this week. San Mateo County moved to the red tier on Feb. 24.
Newsom said he intends to sign the bill shortly after it comes to a vote in the state Legislature on March 4.
Though the bill gives a semblance of a timeline, it does not compel schools to reopen at the end of the month and grants significant flexibility for how to spend the money. School districts could, for example, hire long-term substitutes to replace teachers who are unable or unwilling to return due to health concerns. Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) said the bill allows districts to develop their own plans to meet their unique needs, and will incentivize schools reopening sooner rather than later.
"Parents can now take a sigh of relief in knowing that the legislature and the governor are working to get kids back in the classroom in a safe and healthy way for both children and teachers," Cooper said.
Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) said she and her colleagues have been working overtime and on weekends to come to an agreement on the bill, which must take into account the needs of school staff ranging from food services and janitors to teachers. Some teachers are eager to return to the classroom, she said, while others are over 65, taking care of vulnerable family members or are taking care of their own kids, and they need to be accounted for in the bill.
"You cannot reduce any of this to a couple of soundbites," she said.
As the bill makes its way over the finish line, Newsom said the state will be setting aside a minimum of 75,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, or 10% of the total supply, to vaccinate teachers and school staff. Both Santa Clara and San Mateo counties have revised vaccine eligibility guidelines in recent weeks to include school staffers.
Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto) said in a statement that the deal between the governor and the legislature, along with the newly available vaccines, means there are now enough resources to get schools reopened across California, and that school districts should move quickly to bring back in-person instruction while abiding by the state's safety protocols.
"We need to open up our schools and get students back in the classroom for in-person instruction as quickly and safely as possible," Berman said. "The data is clear that too many students have been suffering, both academically and in their mental health, since we closed schools down to in-person instruction."
Newsom touted that the state has now administered more than 9 million vaccinations, and that the positivity rate for COVID-19 tests has dropped down to 2.3%. Returning to normalcy, however, is contingent on getting kids back to school, he said.
"You can't reopen your economy unless you get your schools reopened for in-person instruction," he said. "We are all united in coming back safely into the schools and helping with the social and emotional supports that our kids so desperately need."
The expectation is that all schools in California will be reopened in the fall, Newsom said.