California Legislature OKs plan aimed at in-person learning

California lawmakers on Thursday approved a $6.6 billion plan aimed at pressuring school districts to return students to the classroom before the end of the school year.

The bill does not order school districts to resume in-person instruction and it does not say parents must send their kids back to the classroom if they don’t want to.

Instead, the state will dangle $2 billion before cash-strapped school boards, offering them a share of that money only if they offer in-person instruction by the end of the month.

School districts have until May 15 to decide. Districts that resume in-person learning after that date won’t get any of that money.

"We need to get the schools reopen. I know it’s hard, but today we are providing powerful tools for schools to move into this direction," said state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco who pleaded with his school district to accept the money and offer in-person instruction.

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Most of California’s 6.1 million students in 1,037 public school districts have been learning from home since last March because of the pandemic.

The bill passed both houses of the state Legislature on Thursday by overwhelming margins. But many lawmakers criticized the bill as too weak.

The bill does not say how much time students should spend in the classroom, prompting fears some districts might have students return for just one day per week and still be eligible to get the money.

Republicans in the state Senate tried to amend the bill to require schools to offer at least three days per week of in-person learning, but Democrats in the majority rejected it.

And while the bill requires most elementary school grades to return to the classroom to get the money, it does not require all middle and high school grades to return this year.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has said he plans to sign the bill into law on Friday. The bill comes as Newsom faces a potential recall election later this year, fueled by anger over his handling of the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

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Newsom has trumpeted the back to school proposal as evidence of his commitment to getting students who have studied mostly online since last March into classrooms again.

But Scott Wilk, the Republican leader in the state Senate, said the bill was simply an effort by Democrats to give Newsom political cover so he can "get parents to believe he’s doing everything he possibly can for them."

"The truth is this bill doesn’t do anything to reopen our schools. I believe with or without this bill, school districts that want to reopen will and school districts that don’t want to reopen won’t," said Wilk, who voted for the bill along with most other Republicans.

The bill has two sets of rules districts must follow to get the money. The first set applies to school districts in counties where the coronavirus is widespread. The second set of rules applies to districts in counties where the virus is not as widespread.

To get the money, districts governed by the first set of rules must offer in-person learning through at least second grade by the end of March. Districts governed by the second set of rules must offer in-person learning to all elementary grades, plus at least one grade in middle and high school.

However, the Newsom administration late Wednesday changed the standards that dictate which counties must follow which rules. The new standards mean most counties will have to follow the second set of rules requiring districts to offer in-person instruction in all elementary school grades.

"It’s a little dishonest what’s happening," said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat from San Diego, who voted in favor of the bill.

The bill also includes $4.6 billion aimed at helping students catch up after a year of learning from home. Districts could use this money to extend the school year into the summer or they could spend it on counseling and tutoring.

All districts would get this money, regardless of whether they offer in-person instruction. But the bill stated that districts must use at least 85% of that money for expenses related to in-person instruction.

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