On Mar. 1, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced at a news conference California’s plan to reopen schools around the state. Legislative leaders joined Newsom to discuss the state’s multibillion-dollar plan to incentivize K-12 schools into reopening. The bill would give power to the state’s 58 counties to decide when to reopen schools.
Under the bill, schools are not required to open. Instead, those that do will receive financial compensation. The package will allocate a total of $6.6 billion to entice and push public schools to reopen and bring students back into classrooms. At least $2 billion of the fund will be grants given to schools that temporarily open kindergarten through second grade by Apr. 1 and bring back at-risk students in all grades.
“Our plan is also geared toward providing schools the resources and incentives that they need to ensure that education can be all things for every child in California,” said Speaker Anthony Rendon at the event.
The bill aims to safely phase in younger students who are most at risk and benefit the most from in-person learning. Those most at risk include foster and homeless youth and children of color disproportionately affected by the pandemic. A study done by Common Sense and Boston Consulting Group found that at least 15 to 16 million students live in households without internet access or the proper device for distance learning at home.
Under the proposal, school districts must reopen Kindergarten through second grade classrooms by Apr. 1 to receive funding from the $2 billion in grants.
However, those that open after Apr. 1 will receive smaller cash grants, and those that don’t open by May 15 would lose their share of the funding. The funds could pay for summer school activities and in-person services like tutoring.
The plan would allow all districts to start slowly phasing in students, even those in the “purple-tier”- the most restrictive level of California’s COVID-19 tier system- as long as the daily rate of COVID-19 cases is less than 25 per 100,000 residents.
Once counties move into the red tier — daily case rates below 7 per 100,000 residents — schools that are eligible for grant funding must open all elementary grades, as well as at least one grade in middle and high school. As of Mar. 9, California has 34 counties in the purple tier and 20 counties in the red tier.
Over 75,000 vaccines will be pushed aside from educators and school employees, Newsom said, and school staff will be prioritized in the distribution of vaccines as well as seniors and those most vulnerable. At least 15 million vaccines have already been administered in California. Schools will also require staff and students to wear masks while in school.
On Mar. 3, the Newsom administration announced it would dedicate 40% of available COVID-19 vaccines to residents in the most disadvantaged areas across the state, as reported by the LA Times.
Legislators have also acknowledged how challenging online learning is for students, from technological challenges to mental health issues.
“This package of funding and supports for our schools recognizes that in-person education is essential to meet not only the learning needs but the mental health and social-emotional needs of our kids — especially the youngest and the most vulnerable,” said Gov. Newsom at a virtual signing ceremony of the bill.
Since the start of the pandemic last year, many schools have been shut down and forced to switch to remote learning. Almost a full year of online schooling across the nation has taken a toll on students, families, and the education system. It’s even more challenging for those who lack the technological resources to access an education.
For younger students, in-person learning is fundamental to build social and emotional skills. The social environment of schools is critical in children’s development as they engage with others in an academic setting. For older students in high school and college, online learning has negatively impacted many students’ mental health.
A report from Best Colleges found that 95% of college students have had “negative mental health symptoms as a result of COVID-19 related circumstances.” Out of the 702 college students surveyed, almost half struggle with isolation, anxiety, and a lack of focus.
“College years are a pivotal time for young adults as they pursue their chosen academic field and have the opportunity to gain independence and learn more about themselves,” said Dr. Melissa Venable, Education Advisor for Best Colleges.
As schools plan to return to in-person instruction, Venable encourages schools to “do all they can to support students as they experience a range of mental health concerns.”
The Safe Schools for All plan comes after ongoing concerns from parents and schools about reopening districts in a safe manner.
By slowly opening schools and phasing in students through safety precautions and measures, the state hopes to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. However, schools will continue to offer online learning for students and families who are still hesitant to send their children back to school.