Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Polaris
Alta Vista Elementary School Principal Karin Sato opens the door for first grade students after they are screened for Covid-19 symptons on the second day of classes at Redondo Beach Unified on Feb. 2, 2021.

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?

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?

Yes.

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.

To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.

Share Article

Comments (16)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

We welcome your comments. All comments are moderated for civility, relevance and other considerations. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. Tristan Moreno 2 months ago2 months ago

    me as a 12 year old boy think that we should go back to school i am getting depressed day by day and i know people will read this and not care but i truly believe that online school is a waste of time i think that we should go to real school to socialize and see out friends and just sitting on a computer all day isn't making kids smarter it is making them … Read More

    me as a 12 year old boy think that we should go back to school i am getting depressed day by day and i know people will read this and not care but i truly believe that online school is a waste of time i think that we should go to real school to socialize and see out friends and just sitting on a computer all day isn’t making kids smarter it is making them more and more sadder we cant talk in the zoom class we cant chat we cant do anything communication and that sucks it really does

  2. PTAMom 2 months ago2 months ago

    There's nothing in this article that indicates that Gov. Newsom puts kids first in making this decision. Well, because he clearly hasn't. The reason we don't see so many cases among kids and young adults is because they have remained in protected environments. When is he going to double check scientific data on school students - after there's a surge and god forbid students die?? He hasn't even moved Middle and High … Read More

    There’s nothing in this article that indicates that Gov. Newsom puts kids first in making this decision. Well, because he clearly hasn’t. The reason we don’t see so many cases among kids and young adults is because they have remained in protected environments. When is he going to double check scientific data on school students – after there’s a surge and god forbid students die??

    He hasn’t even moved Middle and High school kids that react almost as adults do to the virus into the vaccine line. Not only can’t we mandate vaccines, they aren’t available for school students that do choose to get vaccinated. This is a blatant self-interest move.

    Replies

    • MamaKat 2 months ago2 months ago

      As stated in the article, "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. " This … Read More

      As stated in the article,

      “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. ”

      This is not a case of the kids being in “protected environments” i.e. at home. The evidence has shown that kids are safe at school, especially when the appropriate precautions are taken, even when cases in the general population are high.

  3. Shannon Stark 2 months ago2 months ago

    I think there are several reasons in-person learning isn't happening more frequently, in more districts. The safety is an issue, but then the inconvenience is the other. Students can only be at school for a few hours rather than full days. If siblings are at different schools, then they will be on different schedules. Parents can't afford to be transporting the kiddos all day. These obstacles seem insurmountable at this point. High school … Read More

    I think there are several reasons in-person learning isn’t happening more frequently, in more districts. The safety is an issue, but then the inconvenience is the other. Students can only be at school for a few hours rather than full days. If siblings are at different schools, then they will be on different schedules. Parents can’t afford to be transporting the kiddos all day.

    These obstacles seem insurmountable at this point. High school students go to school for 2 hours, home for 2 hours, back to school for 2 hours for sports. It’s a real dilemma for working parents.

  4. Traci Arthur 3 months ago3 months ago

    Teachers and school staff should be vaccinated before students come back.

  5. Matt J. 4 months ago4 months ago

    This plan might have been OK if not for the new, faster spreading variant B.1.1.7. But the variant is already in California, it means the measures we have been taking are no longer enough. We need stricter measures, e.g. more than 6′ separation, N95 or KN5 masks, not just scarves. But this plan does not call for these, so it will spread the illness and cause a surge.

  6. ana Maria alongi 4 months ago4 months ago

    The only Covid test I did, using my health insurance (Anthem-Blue Cross), charged me $30 as a copay. I won’t be able to add $60 per month, if testing twice a week is required, to my monthly budget.

  7. Debbie 4 months ago4 months ago

    My doctor just told me that so many unnecessary tests are being done that it is overwhelming the system. Only those exposed or with symptoms should get tests. And Newsom wants staff and students tested weekly? Can you imagine the overwhelming pressure on our labs? More chances for mistakes, errors and obvious delays in test results. Ignorantt, unrealistic to think this will work!

  8. Rashmi Ahuja 4 months ago4 months ago

    What about substitute teachers? Are they also covered in the 1B plan? No one is talking about these substitutes. Please inform and announce.

  9. Debbie 4 months ago4 months ago

    Newsom is bribing districts with a cash carrot to put teachers at risk. I am disgusted! Frontline workers get full ppe to be around individuals or it’s a video call. Teachers get a mask! How are phonics and phonemic awareness going to be taught to our primary students when teachers are wearing a mask? They need to see my mouth! And there is no way any of these kiddos will have safe social distancing. Classroom … Read More

    Newsom is bribing districts with a cash carrot to put teachers at risk. I am disgusted! Frontline workers get full ppe to be around individuals or it’s a video call. Teachers get a mask! How are phonics and phonemic awareness going to be taught to our primary students when teachers are wearing a mask? They need to see my mouth! And there is no way any of these kiddos will have safe social distancing.

    Classroom square footage does not support 6 foot distancing in the majority of classrooms including mine! This is a slap in the face to educators. Have the Governor/Board members come visit my room when this happens – they won’t- too afraid. Unbelievable ignorance!

  10. Patrick Hale 4 months ago4 months ago

    Check out the National COVID-19 School Response Dashboard, https://statsiq.co1.qualtrics.com/public-dashboard/v0/dashboard/5f78e5d4de521a001036f78e#/dashboard/5f78e5d4de521a001036f78e?pageId=Page_f6071bf7-7db4-4a61-942f-ade4cce464de
    The latest numbers from Texas show that staff are infected at 175% compared to the community and 300% compared to students. It is unethical to force employees to do what you are not willing to do. How many local Boards are meeting face to face? That, at a minimum, should be required in districts who force staff back into the classroom. No education without vaccination!

  11. Igor 4 months ago4 months ago

    First he helped create hysteria, while personally attending gatherings maskless, now he somehow has to “encourage” sheep not be afraid of the wolf, while still crying wolf.

  12. Ann 4 months ago4 months ago

    Gov. Newsom needs to consider these children and the future of Covid-19 side effects. Why is that okay to send elementary kids back and not junior high or high school students?

    Replies

    • T R Weller-Curtner 4 months ago4 months ago

      Data, Ann, data. What does data show about infections rate for 5-10 year-olds? What about the structure of secondary vs. elementary schools in California?

  13. Susan Macias 4 months ago4 months ago

    I cant wait for. Gavin to be recalled!