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Democratic State Legislators Split With Newsom on School Reopening

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Students attend distance learning Zoom classes across from Clarendon Elementary School in San Francisco on Feb. 18, 2021. Students and parents in support of school reopening rallied outside of the closed elementary school. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Democratic state lawmakers split with Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday over the reopening of California public schools, offering a plan to resume in-person learning in April if coronavirus infection rates drop and teachers are offered vaccines.

With the spread of COVID-19 slowing, political pressure has mounted on lawmakers to bring California's youngest students back into classrooms. The legislative plan, Senate Bill 86, offers schools $6.6 billion to prepare classrooms and boost student learning after months of remote instruction.

“This is a major step, but it is not cause for taking a victory lap," said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, in a statement. "This legislation moves us closer to our common goal of getting each student safely into an optimal learning situation. It provides a plan and it provides funding — both for safe school opening and for extra attention to learning recovery."

But the proposal was rebuffed by Newsom, who has pushed to reopen schools without requirements around vaccines.

"While the Legislature’s proposal represents a step in the right direction, it doesn’t go far enough or fast enough," Newsom said, in a statement. "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."

Nevertheless, lawmakers are moving toward a Monday afternoon vote on the plan, which lays out guidance for schools to resume in-person instruction by April 15.

Students needing extra academic support, including foster and homeless youth, as well as chronically absent students, would be allowed to return under the state's strictest, "purple" coronavirus tier, which all but six counties are currently in.

Schools located in counties that fall under the state's "red" tier, which requires fewer than eight new daily cases per 100,000 residents, will be allowed to open their doors to grades K-6.

Falling infection rates could qualify more counties for the red tier in the coming weeks.

"We think with these elements in place, plus the fact that the counties are leaving the purple tier, going to the red tier and the yellow, that this is the right opportunity," said Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, who chairs the Assembly's budget subcommittee focused on education. "Frankly, it's time to get kids back learning."

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The California Teachers Association, the state's powerful union representing educators, said it was still reviewing the plan, but praised the bill's requirements for testing and prioritization of vaccines for school staff.

"This will help stop the yo-yo effect of schools opening and closing, and ensure stability for students, educators and their families," the union said in a statement. "We also strongly appreciate the Legislature’s focus on supporting students who need extra help coming out of this pandemic."

Though infections are on the decline in the state, school reopenings face a plethora of hurdles, including stipulations on vaccines, testing and requirements for collective bargaining on the district level.

The Legislature's plan requires local health departments to make vaccines available for employees working on-site in schools that have reopened to students.

Assembly Budget Committee Chair Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, said the plan offers a long enough runway before reopening to allow any staff who wants a vaccine to get one.

"We do believe that we can find a way to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of school employees who want to go back before school begins," Ting said.

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The vaccine language is sure to provide a test for some lawmakers over whether to break with the governor. For weeks, Newsom has echoed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that schools can safely reopen without vaccinating all staff.

"Prioritizing teachers is important, but it should not hold up our progress," said state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, in a statement Thursday after the plan was announced. "Allowing our children to continue their education is essential for their well-being, to achieve equity and for the overall economy."

Republicans, who have made school reopenings a central theme of their effort to recall Newsom from office, are likely to agree with the governor that the Legislature's plan puts too much emphasis on inoculations.

"The data and science recommends that we open schools without delay," said Asm. Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin, the top Republican on the Assembly Education Committee, in a statement. "Any proposal to open classrooms should guarantee that every child in California has the option to receive in-person instruction immediately."

Requirements in SB 86 for collective bargaining agreements between districts and local unions could also prove to be a hurdle for reopening, said Kevin Gordon, president of Capitol Advisors Group, which represents hundreds of school districts across the state.

"We've heard that's potentially a big problem," he said.

Districts will also have to weigh whether the funding coming from the state will be enough to institute a strict testing regime of asymptomatic teachers and students.

If school districts choose to remain in distance learning, they will not be able to access the $2 billion in reopening funds, and they won't be able to spend their portion of the $4.6 billion reserved for "learning recovery" until their doors open.

The plan also includes $6 billion in school reopening aid previously approved by the federal government.

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