Credit: Lea Suzuki/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris
Liz Duffield, special education teacher, displays artwork by students in her preschool kindergarten combination classroom at Lu Sutton Elementary school In Novato in December 2020.

Five statewide organizations representing school districts and county offices of education that had refrained from commenting on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to entice school districts to begin reopening are urging major revisions they say would make the plan feasible.

They issued a letter to Newsom outlining the revisions on Tuesday, two days before the state Senate will begin hearings that will determine if or when the governor can move forward with the plan.

Newsom is proposing $2 billion in incentives to districts that adopt a safety and health protection plan, comprehensive Covid testing procedures and a schedule to phase in the return of elementary students. Starting with transitional kindergarten through 3rd grade, they would commit to bring back students for in-person instruction starting Feb. 15, if infection rates in their counties have fallen by then — or to postpone until they do.

While crediting Newsom for taking “proactive” steps and laying out “critical components” for the return to school, the organizations are recommending modifying key elements of the governor’s strategy. They call for giving districts more flexibility to reduce the amount of Covid testing, having the state pay for all testing expenses and not giving labor unions final say over districts’ Covid safety protocols.

“Without these changes, we question the efficacy and merits of such an immense” investment of state funding, they wrote. The organizations are the California School Boards Association, the Association of California School Administrators, the California Association of School Business Officials, the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, and the Small School Districts Association.

Together with the California Teachers Association and other school labor unions, they form the Education Coalition and lobby on issues of common interest. But they are at odds with labor on several issues, including Newsom’s requirement that districts negotiate the safety plans in return for extra funding ranging from $450 to $700 per student. The organizations instead call only for showing proof of consulting with unions. It would be “inappropriate” to require negotiations, given the tight timeframe for carrying out Newsom’s plan and to force reopening talks on agreements already reached, they said.

They also call for the state to set statewide, uniform safety and health standards for in-person instruction, such as the level of Covid infections permitting a return to school. Seven of the largest urban districts in the state, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Long Beach and Fresno, made the same request in a letter they sent on Jan.6.

To receive funding under Newsom’s plan, districts would have to start the return once positive infections average are less than 25 per 100,000 residents in their county — a rate that many counties currently far exceed. That rate is the threshold for the most restrictive purple tier under the state’s classification system for opening businesses, schools and other public activities. CTA and the California Federation of Teachers continue to oppose reopening in the purple tier.

Districts want Newsom to negotiate conditions with the unions and mandate one set of standards. Not wanting to get caught in the middle, Newsom has insisted it’s a matter for districts and unions to negotiate on their own.

The management groups’ letter does not directly address Newsom’s timetable, which sets Feb. 1 as the initial deadline for districts seeking funding to submit their union-negotiated safety plans to their county offices of education for review.

But that deadline, which school organizations called too aggressive, may become moot. Newsom can’t set his plan in motion without the Legislature’s approval to spend the money, and the Assembly’s first hearing on the plan, on Jan. 25, leaves a week to pass it as proposed — or push back the deadline and change the terms.

Faced with difficult talks with unions and the daunting logistics of setting up a system for Covid testing, districts may be waiting to see what the Legislature does. Edgar Zazueta, senior director of policy and governmental relations for the Association of California School Administrators, said he’s hearing from superintendents who are shifting their attention instead to ensuring that teachers and staff can be vaccinated as soon as possible, through possible partnerships with their local health agencies.

Even though Newsom said his goal is to bring back as many students now as possible, ramping up testing for all staff and returning students may preclude districts’ participation in his program, the organizations warned. “An unrealistic amount of infrastructure, staffing, new billing operations, private and state lab capacity, testing contracts, collection and transportation of tests” pose challenges, the letter said.

Instead, the state should let districts and their county health departments work out the testing requirements “to the extent possible,” recognizing local infection patterns may vary within counties and parental consent and testing labs’ possible backlog may pose potential problems.

Protect schools already open

Last fall, before the resurgence of Covid, dozens of suburban, rural and small districts opened elementary, middle and high schools, often in a hybrid model alternating between distance learning at home and in-person at school. Some districts brought back small cohorts of the students struggling most — homeless and foster children, students with disabilities and children with poor internet service — with plans to phase in more students.

The guidance that Newsom and the California Department of Public Health released on Jan. 14 creates a bifurcated system. Schools that had opened elementary schools in the fall can now resume in-person instruction under the conditions set by their county health departments and state guidelines in effect at the time — as long as they had brought back at least one full grade of students before the current surge halted campus reopenings. Most of those districts have been testing only teachers, not students, and doing so every other month.

The organizations express concern that new requirements in the latest state guidance will force these districts to restart negotiations on previous agreements, jeopardizing reopening plans, even if they don’t intend to seek Newsom’s offer of funding.

Other recommendations in their letter include:

  • Funding: The state should pay for all testing expenses with funding outside of Proposition 98, the portion of the General Fund dedicated for K-12 instruction; it should also pay for testing expenses for districts already open. And it should expand Covid relief for small districts.
  • Liability protection: The state should pass legislation protecting school districts that meet state Covid safety requirements from lawsuits. The school organizations have made this request before.
  • Substitute teachers: To avoid growing teacher shortages as a result of teachers who become ill or are quarantined or cannot return to school, the state should authorize emergency teaching permits and provide financial incentives for teachers and non-certified employees to be to substitutes.

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  1. Melissa 1 month ago1 month ago

    This article and associated articles does not address the spacing logistics that must occur…namely, 4 feet between chairs. How do schools do that with large classroom sizes, lack of classroom space and the inability to hire qualified teachers?

  2. Chris 1 month ago1 month ago

    It's as if Newsom didn't actually talk to anyone before rolling out his plan. As far as I can tell, it has no support outside of his own office. If we're being honest, there is nothing Newsom can do aside from asserting some sort of executive authority and ordering schools to open. We closed schools nearly a year ago when there where practically zero confirmed Covid cases within school communities. Some places may open in … Read More

    It’s as if Newsom didn’t actually talk to anyone before rolling out his plan. As far as I can tell, it has no support outside of his own office.

    If we’re being honest, there is nothing Newsom can do aside from asserting some sort of executive authority and ordering schools to open. We closed schools nearly a year ago when there where practically zero confirmed Covid cases within school communities. Some places may open in a hybrid capacity before the end of the school year but right now we should hope the union will agree to full in-person learning by fall because it certainly isn’t happening this year.

  3. S Wotherspoon 1 month ago1 month ago

    The 1/15 plan did not create a “bifurcated system” with regard to schools that previously opened in the red tier (or with an approved waiver) “can now resume in-person instruction…”. These schools were allowed to remain open since the fall, regardless of the county tier status. This was defined in the CDPH July 17 guidance. What is at issue is whether these schools that opened, and were permitted to remain open, should now be subject to the 1/15 new requirements.

  4. S Wotherspoon 1 month ago1 month ago

    The threshold for opening businesses and other sectors of the economy is not necessarily 25 cases per 100K. The 25 per 100K threshold is only for schools.

    On 12/30, Newsom said the threshold would be 28. Previous thresholds were under 7, or over 7 with an approved waiver.

  5. Brenda Lebsack 1 month ago1 month ago

    Daniel- I hear you. I am also a teacher and many teachers want to get back in the classroom with their students. Unions do not always represent teachers, in fact the gap continues to widen. Union’s main concerns are political, if that were not so they would not have passed laws that took away teachers rights such as AB 119 which says employing districts must give unions the teacher’s personal contact info without … Read More

    Daniel- I hear you. I am also a teacher and many teachers want to get back in the classroom with their students. Unions do not always represent teachers, in fact the gap continues to widen. Union’s main concerns are political, if that were not so they would not have passed laws that took away teachers rights such as AB 119 which says employing districts must give unions the teacher’s personal contact info without the teacher’s notification or consent. And SB 866 forbids school districts to inform teachers of their right to join or not join the union. Unions are also not looking out for the best interest of students when they pass policies to remove parent rights. Such as in Jan 2020 CTA said students should have access to hormone therapy without parent consent.

    Daniel- if you seek true equity, why not become independent of greedy unions and liberate parents to be the best advocates for their children through school choice? Let’s all stop with the “power grab” while pretending to be so noble and altruistic. Monopolization of education has only proven to be expensive and ineffective, it’s time to break free and embrace educational reform

    Replies

    • Eileen 1 month ago1 month ago

      Totally agree, Brenda.

  6. Mark Stillman 1 month ago1 month ago

    Teachers so many obstacles. Remember it’s the students that you serve.

  7. Jim 1 month ago1 month ago

    If labor unions have a say, we will never go back to in-person teaching. There is nothing in it for them.

    Replies

    • Daniel Plonsey 1 month ago1 month ago

      That's a completely unfounded and frankly ridiculous statement, Jim. As a teacher, and as a site rep to my union, I can report that very, very few teachers want to stay at home. It's no fun to teach to a bunch of silent icons on one's screen. We are, however, concerned for our kids, their families, and ourselves and our own families. The CFT (my statewide union) is calling for a "circuit-breaker": a month-long shutdown … Read More

      That’s a completely unfounded and frankly ridiculous statement, Jim. As a teacher, and as a site rep to my union, I can report that very, very few teachers want to stay at home. It’s no fun to teach to a bunch of silent icons on one’s screen. We are, however, concerned for our kids, their families, and ourselves and our own families.

      The CFT (my statewide union) is calling for a “circuit-breaker”: a month-long shutdown of virtually all activity, to be supported by funding from the state so that people don’t get evicted, lose jobs, etc. The attempt to blame teachers for schools being closed is an attempt to shift the blame from a government which has been reluctant to call upon the wealthiest Americans to share a bit to keep our country functioning: to support proper testing, to support workers, to get people vaccinated swiftly.

      We teachers would love to reopen schools, and we’re used to taking risks when we step into a school these days. But we’re opposed to our students, their families, and ourselves being treated as expendable, just to allow a thoroughly unequal economy to continue its business of transferring wealth to the wealthiest.

      • Keith 1 month ago1 month ago

        I don’t think anyone considers teachers expendable. In fact, we consider them essential, which is why they need to be in the classroom and classrooms need to be open. I see the same teachers yelling the loudest about “safety” having no issues standing elbow to elbow with people at Costco. The unions are a very poor representation of teachers, as evidenced by all the demands put forth by L.A. teachers unions making completely unrelated demands … Read More

        I don’t think anyone considers teachers expendable. In fact, we consider them essential, which is why they need to be in the classroom and classrooms need to be open. I see the same teachers yelling the loudest about “safety” having no issues standing elbow to elbow with people at Costco. The unions are a very poor representation of teachers, as evidenced by all the demands put forth by L.A. teachers unions making completely unrelated demands (police defunding, moratorium on charter schools, Medicare for all, etc.). These demands may have some merit in separate discussions, but kids shouldn’t be the pawns in that.

    • Christopher A Ross 1 month ago1 month ago

      Exactly! That’s why they had parents sign a 3 year agreement on school laptops.