SACRAMENTO— California’s public schools can tap into $6.6 billion in a plan Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Friday to try to pressure districts to reopen classrooms by the end of March. Educators, parents and lawmakers question whether it will work.
After nearly a year of distance learning for most K-12 students during the Coronavirus pandemic, parents in the nation’s most populated state say they are frustrated and losing hope their children will see the inside of a classroom this year.
“Is this money going to be a motivator? I don’t know,” said Dan Lee, a father in San Francisco, a city that sued its own school district to reopen classrooms. “We throw money at them, we sue them, we shame them. They still haven’t moved.”
The law does not require school districts to resume in-person instruction. Instead, the state is dangling $2 billion before cash-strapped school Boards, offering them a share only if they start offering in-person instruction by month’s end. The rest of the money would go toward helping students catch up.
“This is the right time to safely reopen for in-person instruction,” said Newsom, who faces a likely recall election this year, fueled by anger over his handling of the pandemic.
Getting students back into classrooms has been a fraught issue nationwide, pitting politicians against powerful teachers unions. Each state has handled it differently.
In contrast to Newsom’s let-schools-decide approach, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Friday issued an executive order mandating all K-12 public schools offer in-person learning by mid-April.
In Chicago, the fight to reopen public schools in the nation’s third-largest district nearly resulted in a teachers’ strike last month over COVID-19 safety plans. Chicago and New York City, the nation’s largest school district, have now reopened classrooms to elementary school students, but neither city has a plan for high school students.
In California, the new law has attracted bipartisan support and scorn in equal measure, with the Democratic governor and lawmakers saying it marked an important step forward but was far from perfect.
Teachers from some of the biggest districts have come out against it, saying schools can’t reopen until infection rates drop and enough educators have been vaccinated.
Among them is the powerful United Teachers of Los Angeles, whose members were voting Friday to reject what they called an unsafe return for the second-largest district in the nation. This week, the union slammed the reopening plan as “a recipe for propagating structural racism” by benefiting wealthier areas with lower infection rates.
“If you condition funding on the reopening of schools, that money will only go to white and wealthier and healthier school communities,” union leader Cecily Myart-Cruz said in a statement.
While California businesses have opened and closed through the ups and downs of the pandemic, many school Boards have not been willing to return students to classrooms as they have struggled with the costs to implement safety standards and negotiations with teachers unions.
But as the rate of new Coronavirus cases continues to fall and more people are getting vaccinated, politicians and parents have been pressuring districts to return to in-person learning before the end of the school year.
The new law is California’s first attempt to do that on a statewide scale.
Newsom signed it via Zoom, unintentionally mimicking how most of the state’s 6.1 million public school students have been learning for the past year. The irony was not lost on Newsom, who said the virtual ceremony was necessary to include officials scattered across the state. He highlighted the struggles he and lawmakers had in negotiating the plan.
“When you look at 58 counties, a thousand-plus school districts, this truly is a challenge at a scale no other state in the country is faced with,” Newsom said.
To be eligible for the money, most districts will have to offer in-person learning for all elementary school grades. But the law does not require a return to classrooms for most middle and high school students and does not mandate how long the students must be in classrooms.