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California Legislature Approves Plan to Reopen In-Person Schooling

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Students work on their laptop computers at St. Joseph Catholic School in La Puente, California, on Nov. 16, 2020, where pre-kindergarten to second grade students in need of special services returned to the classroom for in-person instruction.  (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

The California state Legislature approved a $6.6 billion plan on Thursday to encourage school districts to resume in-person education for the youngest public school students in the state.

Assembly Bill 86 was the Legislature's most decisive action yet to reopen schools, in the face of rising political pressure from parents who have dealt with nearly a year of distance learning in many districts. But the legislation falls short of actually mandating a reopening; the decision of when and how to bring students and teachers back to class will now be decided in hundreds of local school districts across the state.

“[AB 86] really does provide an incentive for people to reopen. It really enables people to open," said state Sen. John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, who acknowledged that "we let the school boards decide, we let the locals decide how it best works."

The bill cleared the state Senate on a 36-0 vote, followed by a 72-4 vote in the Assembly.

Gov. Gavin Newsom could sign the bill into law as soon as Friday.

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AB 86 sets a deadline of April 1 for districts to begin reopening their doors. Each day after that date that schools stay closed, districts will have to return a portion of the $2 billion in incentive grants, with a deadline of May 15.

The remaining $4.6 billion will be budgeted to help mitigate learning loss — through extra tutoring, counseling and potentially expanded summer school. Most of that money will only go to schools that return children to class.

To receive the money, districts will have to return grades K-2 to in-person instruction. And districts in counties with lower rates of COVID-19 spread — the state's red tier — will have to bring back all elementary school grades, and one grade of middle or high school.

Democrats defended the plan as a path of least resistance to resuming live classroom instruction.

By dropping previous ideas to require vaccines for teachers, collective bargaining agreements and asymptomatic testing, the Legislature is "creating a pathway for more in-person instruction," said state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley.

Instead, the bill sets aside 10% of the state's vaccine supply for education workers and only requires a testing regimen in schools located in the state's most restrictive purple tier that have not opened by April 1.


In the Bay Area, most large districts have remained in distance learning since the pandemic began. 26 of 27 Democrats representing parts of the region voted to approve AB 86, while Jim Frazier, D-Fairfield, did not vote.

To many Republicans, however, the plan amounted to nothing more than a pricey plea to local districts, with no requirement to actually open schools.

"I believe that with or without this bill, school districts that want to reopen will, and school districts that don't want to reopen won't," said Republican state Senate Leader Scott Wilk of Santa Clarita.

But after amendments offered by GOP lawmakers to speed up reopening were voted down, most Republicans went along with the only reopening option left on the table.

"I will be reluctantly voting for AB 86 because my school districts need the funding to meet safety protocols and open schools safely," Wilk said before the vote.

Republicans aimed their ire at Newsom, who they argued could have taken more aggressive executive action to force reopening.

"Many other states have been open safely, their kids have been back in school, we haven't," said state Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City. "That is mostly on the governor, but it's also on us."

After the bill is enacted, pressure will turn to local districts, many of which have yet finalize plans for reopening. In large districts, school boards will still have to come to terms with the local teachers union on the reopening standards and a schedule of classroom instruction.

"Now that we have done this, it is now up to the school districts to take the steps they need to deploy these resources, deploy the vaccines and to get the schools reopened quickly," said state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco.

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