SACRAMENTO, Calif (KTVU/KTTV) - After weeks of tense negotiations, California legislators agreed Thursday on a $6.5 billion proposal aimed at getting students back in classrooms this spring following months of closures because of the pandemic.
The proposed "Safe and Open Schools" plan would overhaul a $2 billion proposal from Governor Gavin Newsom that was widely criticized by school superintendents, unions and lawmakers. The proposal unveiled by Newsom in December would have rewarded schools that reopened with additional funding for safety measures.
Critics said it set unrealistic timelines, didn’t include enough money to pay for frequent COVID-19 testing of students and teachers, and failed to address the vaccination of teachers.
The new proposal would triple the funding for schools and require county public health departments to offer vaccinations to school staff who return to in-person classes. It also pushes back the timeline for reopening and gives school districts greater freedom in how to spend the funding, which each district would receive based on its student population.
Getting students back into classrooms has become a pressing political issue for Newsom, who did not immediately comment on the Legislature’s proposal and is facing a possible recall election later this year.
"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. These bills move us closer, and build on the governor’s framework," said state Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego. "We all share the same goal – to get students back into school safely."
The proposal, detailed in two identical pieces of legislation, would not force schools to reopen. But it would provide more funding to those that do.
In order to get the money, school districts must offer in-person classes by April 15 to "vulnerable" students, including English learners, homeless students, those without computers and foster children.
The proposal also requires schools that receive the money to reopen for all students in grades TK-6 when case rates in their counties drop below 7 per 100,0000 — and to all vulnerable student groups in higher grades.
Regardless of funding, the proposal requires all schools to adopt a COVID-19 safety plan by April 1 that has been approved by labor unions.
Critics of Newsom’s original plan — including Los Angeles Unified, San Diego, San Francisco and other large school districts across the state — said it set unreachable rules and deadlines that included requirements to reopen as early as mid-February when California’s COVID-19 case rates were skyrocketing.
The new plan appears to give school districts greater freedom in how to spend the money. It would allow schools to extend the instructional school year and increase the school day to catch up on learning lost from nearly a year of online classes. It would also allow schools to spend money on COVID-19 testing and equipment to make classrooms safe.
Voicing his support for the plan, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, a Democrat from Sacramento, said, "It is our top priority to ensure that California kids can safely return to school soon and doing so will also help reopen our economy."
MIXED REVIEWS ACROSS SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
There are mixed reactions from parents about the new proposal.
Jenny Hontz, a spokeswoman for "Speak Up," a grassroots parent organization, is cautiously optimistic.
"We've been advocating for families to have options to return their kids to school as soon as it's safe. We recognize that a lot of families have different views on this. It gives us some hope that at least these kids will be offered the option by mid-April, though I will say a lot of parents are still skeptical even with this deal. We've had carrots dangled in front of us for so long and the goal posts have been moved but a lot of parents aren't going to believe it until they see it," she said.
Hontz said she wants to send her son back to school .
"I am really excited to send my kid back as soon as the school opens its doors. I have a 5th grader and it's been really challenging as a working parent to manage online schooling and work at the same time from home and I think a lot of kids have been suffering from isolation. I have an only child so he hasn't been able to see any of his friends," she said.
Hontz acknowledged how schools will still offer distance learning despite reopening plans for parents who want to keep their kids home.
"Even when schools open, they can choose to keep their kids home distance learning if they don't feel safe or comfortable going back and that's really important for a lot of our families in communities that have been devastated by this pandemic," she said.
Jsané Tyler who is an LAUSD parent, and an employee believes it's not safe to have children return to classrooms yet.
"I don't believe that students should be back on campus right now. It's not safe. There's no clear safety plan. We can't just can't gamble with our children and even for us staff members and adults, we're talking about human life," she said.
Tyler said facilities are not yet up to par to reopen.
"We don't even have hot water in the staff bathrooms so if it's about staying safe and being clean and washing your hands, and making sure that we're doing all that we can to ensure a Covid free environment, there are so many moving parts to what that will look like. Just to say oh well we're out of the purple zone so let's go ahead and reopen, it doesn't make sense," she said.
Newsom issued the following statement Thursday regarding efforts to safely reopen schools in California:
"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. My Administration has not waited: in that time, we have prioritized school staff for COVID-19 vaccinations, launched new online tools for transparency and accountability, provided technical assistance to hundreds of school districts, and are directly supporting over a thousand schools with routine COVID-19 testing. More importantly, local leaders have not waited: every day, more school leaders and staff are coming together to announce safe returns to in-person instruction.
Our plan is grounded in the same science that’s been recognized by the medical professionals at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by the President’s Chief Medical Adviser, Dr. Fauci, and by the President himself.
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.
A joint statement was also released from Fresno Unified Superintendent Robert G. Nelson, Long Beach Unified Superintendent Jill Baker, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner, Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jorge A. Aguilar and San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten:
Today, the Legislature introduced Senate Bill 86, its Safe and Open Schools Plan, in response to Governor Gavin Newsom’s request for early action to support safe school reopening. For more than 11 months, our six school districts have been urging state leaders to make schools a priority and the unveiling of this proposed legislation is a step in the right direction.
These clear guidelines from the state will help reopen schools in the safest way possible. In addition to ensuring appropriate health measures at schools and underscoring the need to control community spread of the virus, the proposed action recognizes the critical role vaccinations for all school staff play in creating the safest possible school environment."
FOX 11 News' Koco McAboy contributed to KTVU 2's report.