This guide provides answers to frequently asked questions about how California is moving forward with plans for reopening the state’s K-12 schools. We will continue to update it as the situation evolves.
What is the rationale for California’s in-person instruction plan?
In the bill accompanying the 2020-21 state budget in June 2020, the Legislature said that school districts and charter schools “shall offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible” and reiterated that position in March 2021 in Assembly Bill 86, the revised statute for school reopening. In announcing his “Safe Schools for All” guidelines on Dec. 30, 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom said that “in-person is the best setting to meet not only the core learning needs of students, but also their mental health and social-emotional needs.”
Is it safe to bring students back?
Science Brief: Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in Schools, Updated March 19, 2021.
Federal and state health officials said it is relatively safe to bring students back to school, starting with the earliest grades, if health and safety practices are implemented and followed.
In a statement accompanying the Safe Schools for All plan, the California Department of Public Health asserted the following:
- Research across the globe shows that children get Covid-19 less often than adults, and when they do get sick, they get less sick than adults.
- In studies of open schools in America and around the world, children do not seem to be major sources of transmission — either to each other or to adults.
- The growing body of evidence is particularly strong regarding lower risks in elementary schools.
- Even in communities with many Covid-19 cases, we do not see many outbreaks in schools. That’s because the right precautions can stop outbreaks before they start. See this report, for example.
“We have learned a great deal since the beginning of the pandemic, and both national and international studies demonstrate the relatively low risks and high benefits of educating students in classrooms — especially for elementary grades,” the statement said.
How many students are attending in-person classes in California?
Since January 2021, the pace of in-person instruction has accelerated as the rate of new daily cases has declined across the state, and vaccinations steadily increased.
Based on new figures supplied by the state,
But based on available information, the vast majority of students in California are still learning remotely. Only 37% of elementary schools even offer some form of in-person instruction, and even fewer middle schools (19%) and high schools (20%), according to a Los Angeles Times tracker.
According to the Los Angeles Times, only 1.7 million out of California 6.1 million public school students, including charter schools, have the option to return to school.
Under what conditions can schools reopen in California?
Based on the March 20 guidance issued by the California Department of Public Health, elementary and secondary school grades can open if their counties are in the purple tier, where infections are highest, if their average daily case rate of new Covid-10 infections is less than 25 per 100,000 residents. All schools can reopen in counties in the red, orange and yellow tiers, as long as they implement required health and safety practices.
Do children have to attend schools that reopen?
No. The state said that school districts should continue to offer distance learning for parents who don’t want their children to receive in-person instruction. Surveys show that in many districts, a majority of parents prefer their children continue to receive instruction remotely.
Are there financial incentives for schools to reopen?
Yes. Under terms spelled out in AB 86, schools will receive additional funds if they reopen by April 1 for students with extra needs or requiring special attention and offer in-person instruction to students in specified grades, as determined by the tier their counties are in on the state’s color-coded system ranking the level of Covid-19 infection.
What do school districts have to do to qualify for the funds?
To get their full share of the $2 billion in incentive funding, school districts have to offer in-person instruction for students in transitional kindergarten, kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grades beginning April 1, regardless of the tier their counties are in. However, the rate of new daily cases of Covid cannot exceed 25 per 100,000 residents, the upper range of the purple tier, to reopen.
They must also offer in-person instruction for “individuals with exceptional needs” and “to all prioritized pupil groups” by April 1.
As soon as the counties in which they’re located move to the red, orange or yellow tiers, districts must offer in-person instruction to all elementary students, as well as to at least a single grade spanning middle and high schools. Districts will have advance notice, since it takes two weeks to confirm a change in tiers. As of March 30, 2021, only three of the state’s 58 counties fell in the purple tier: Inyo, Merced and San Joaquin.
How much will each district receive?
Amounts will vary considerably. Funds will be allocated based on what a district is entitled to receive under the Local Control Funding Formula — a base grant, and additionally supplemental and concentration grants determined by the proportions of low-income, foster and homeless students and English learners in a district.
What students are in a “prioritized student group”?
As outlined in the new legislation, to receive the incentive funds, districts are also required to offer in-person instruction “to all pupils who are individuals with exceptional needs, if consistent with each pupil’s individualized education program, and to all prioritized pupil groups.”
The definition of which students would be in “a prioritized pupil group” is broad. In addition to special education students, these are students “at risk for abuse, neglect, or exploitation; homeless and foster youth; English learners; students without access to a computing device, software and high-speed internet necessary to participate in online instruction; and disengaged pupils,” and other students that districts determine have struggled the most during the pandemic.
What if a district isn’t able to serve all these “prioritized” students?
If the number of students seeking in-person instruction in this category exceeds the capacity of districts to maintain health and safety standards, districts are only required to serve students to their “maximum practical capacity.”
Does this law apply to charter schools?
Yes. The law applies to all local education authorities, or LEAs, which includes school districts, county boards of education, and charter schools. In most cases, when this guide refers to districts, the same provisions apply to charter schools.
What if districts don’t offer in-person instruction by April 1?
The funds they would have received on April 1 will decrease by 1% for each instructional day that schools are not open through May 15. Previously scheduled school vacations will not count against districts. After May 15, school districts would not get any additional funding.
What qualifies as in-person instruction?
AB 86 has a very broad definition of in-person instruction. It does not specify how many hours or days a student should have access to it. It says school districts must only offer in-person instruction “to the greatest extent possible” and if that is not possible, to offer a hybrid form of instruction, with some part of the day or week in a distance-learning mode and the rest in an in-person mode.
What if more students want in-person instruction than a district is able to handle?
According to the SB 86, if the number of “prioritized pupils” exceeds a district’s “practical capacity” to maintain health and safety, a district does not have to serve those students.
Do staff and students have to be tested for the virus?
A staff member or student who shows symptoms associated with Covid-19 should be sent home and encouraged to get tested, according to state guidance issued in January 2021 (see Page 33 of the guidance). Those who have had close contact with that person (within 6 feet for 15 minutes or longer) should also be sent home, with a recommendation that they get tested within five to seven days.
Districts are not required to test students and staff without symptoms, known as asymptomatic testing, as long as they have posted their Covid-19 safety plan by March 31.
If they have not posted their safety plan by that date, schools will have to test all staff and students as long as their county is in the purple tier, the level with the highest infection rates. The new law does not specify how often they would need to be tested.
Where do the $2 billion in incentive funds come from?
They will come out of one-time state funding allocated for K-12 schools through the Proposition 98 formula that will be available as a result of an unexpected budget surplus this year.
What must districts spend the incentive funds on?
Funds must be spent “for any purpose consistent with providing in-person instruction, including Covid-19 testing, cleaning, personal protective equipment, facility needs, staffing costs, and social and mental health supports provided in conjunction with in-person instruction.”
Do school districts need to get approval from the state before opening?
Yes, but only districts in counties in the purple tier. School districts in the purple tier must submit their Covid-19 safety plan to their local public health department and the California Department of Public Health. If either department identifies “a deficiency” in terms of health and safety guidelines and regulations, the district will be notified and given an opportunity “to resolve the deficiency” before being allowed to open.
If districts are in the red tier, they just need to post a safety plan on their website at least five days before reopening,
Are districts required to negotiate or come to an agreement with their teachers unions before opening?
No. But the legislation does not override the bargaining rights of employee unions, which can demand safety and health protections that the state does not require for reopening. Fremont Unified and Santa Ana Unified are among the districts that will forfeit extra funding by not offering students other than those in prioritized groups the option of in-person instruction.
Will schools that have already opened receive funding from the $2 billion incentive fund?
Does the new law require teachers to be vaccinated before reopening schools?
No. However, the state has included teachers in Phase 1b of the vaccine rollout and, beginning March 1, Gov. Newsom set aside 10% of all vaccines available statewide each week for school employees, including teachers, until vaccinations have been offered to all who want them.
What else is in the legislation?
The legislation also sets aside $4.6 billion proposed by Gov. Newsom in his January budget for districts to implement programs that address the harm caused by Covid-19 to students academic progress and their emotional and mental health. School districts must adopt a plan by June 1 on how they plan to use their funds by completing a state template that requires that they list, by category, how they plan to spend the money.
Before adopting the plan, they must consult with parents and members of the public. It also requires districts by March 15 to provide much more detailed information to the state on numbers of children in distance learning, hybrid instruction, or in-person classes, not be district but by individual schools.
What can districts spend that money on?
Districts will have flexibility to determine how to spend the money, although 85% must be spent on “expenditures related to providing in-person services,” leaving only 15% to be spent on increasing or improving services for students in distance learning. Options include summer school, an extended school year or school day, tutoring, counseling and staff training, through the 2022-23 school year; 10% must be spent on rehiring or expanding the number of paraprofessionals, such as classroom aides, with priority for those serving students with disabilities and other special education students.
How will funding levels be determined?
As with the $2 billion return-to-school incentive grants, the Local Control Funding Formula will determine how the $4.6 billion will be distributed to districts.
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