California Governor Pitches $2 Billion School-Reopening Plan

California Governor Gavin Newsom unveiled a $2 billion plan to help schools reopen for in-person instruction by early spring, even as a surge in Covid-19 cases overwhelms health-care facilities in the most populous U.S. state.

Funds from his proposed legislative package would be spent on testing, ventilation and personal protective equipment. Newsom said he’ll seek weekly testing for communities with high rates of transmission; masks for all students and staff; improved contact tracing; and the prioritization of school workers for vaccinations. Distance learning will still be an option.

The Golden State “continues to address and deal with the challenges associated with this third wave, but it’s never too soon by definition to talk about getting our students back into the classroom in particular,” Newsom said in a press conference Wednesday. “Safety and mitigation measures, clearly we believe, can prevent transmissions in the school setting. Transmissions among and from younger students -- students-to students -- is simply not common.”

Newsom is pitching a phased approach to reopening, such that the state’s youngest as well as its most disproportionately impacted students would be prioritized, beginning in February, March or April. He wants to get everybody “back on track across the spectrum by early spring,” he said.

The state would have to see an improvement in its outbreak before most schools reopen, with the vast majority of the population currently under stay-at-home orders. California has been averaging almost 40,000 new cases daily over the past two weeks, and its average rate of positive tests has climbed to 12.2% from 2.5% in mid-October.

Newsom reported 432 daily deaths from Covid on Tuesday -- a record -- and said nearly 301,000 vaccine doses had been administered thus far. A new, more infectious strain of the virus, which emerged in the U.K., has now also been identified in California, the governor said in a separate conversation Wednesday with infectious-disease specialist Anthony Fauci.

Safety Plan

Under Newsom’s school outline, elementary schools may reopen if they submit a Covid safety plan to both local and state officials. Local health departments would have five days to disapprove. The respective county must have a seven-day average case rate of less than 28 cases per 100,000 people per day to implement the plan.

California has more than 5,800 public elementary schools with almost 3 million students enrolled. The Los Angeles Unified School District is the nation’s second largest, after New York City.

Newsom said California would be creative in terms of funding to address the issue of learning loss for students, many of whom have been in remote schooling since March.

The state is “looking at extending the day, looking at extending into the summer, looking at the opportunity to get tutors and additional supports,” Newsom said. “I can assure you it is not only top of mind, it’s foundational in terms of the budget that we’ll be submitting for consideration to the legislature.”

Seven California school districts, including in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, put out a joint statement welcoming Newsom’s plan to prioritize the reopening of public-school classrooms, and said they will put out a thorough response prior to the state legislature reconvening on Jan. 11.

“It will take a coordinated effort at the state and local levels to reopen classrooms as soon as possible while protecting the health and safety of all in the school community,” the districts said.

President-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday said once he takes office next month, he’ll seek congressional help to fund his ambitious vaccine distribution and reopening plans, including protective equipment for front-line health workers and “tens of billions” of dollars to reopen elementary and middle schools.

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