Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “Safe Schools for All” plan presented during the waning days of 2020 has raised hopes that more schools could reopen for in-person instruction this school year, at least for the state’s youngest children.
The goal, Newsom explained, is “to support all communities to be on track for safe in-person instruction by early spring 2021.”
Yet the outlook for that happening appears daunting. What challenges do districts face in jump-starting in person instruction? Here are the principle ones:
Covid-19 spreading across the state
Even those most vigorously arguing that returning to school presents relatively few risks to children acknowledge that it should be done within the context of containing the spread of the virus in the larger community.
But the virus is surging in California, reaching crisis levels in many parts of the states. What’s more, several countries that were often held up as models for what California, and the United States, should be doing, have shut their schools, most notably the United Kingdom. Germany also has closed its schools for a month, at least until mid-January, as have other countries such as the Netherlands and South Korea.
Much closer to home, Los Angeles County public health director Barbara Ferrer has called for all schools in California’s largest county to stop offering in-person instruction or services, at least for the next three weeks.
Not helping the situation is the detection of a new more contagious strain of the virus.
All this is likely to make more parents, in addition to school staff, more apprehensive about coming back to school for in-person instruction. It also presents a contradictory messaging problem for the state and schools: ordering families to stay home and not mix with other families or households for any reason — and simultaneously saying it is OK for them to return to school to interact with children and adults from multiple households, indoors, for hours each day.
Logistics and costs of testing for Covid-19
Newsom’s reopening plan calls for testing everyone in a school — both school staff and students — including those who are asymptomatic. It says they must be tested every two weeks if the school is in a county in the purple tier, with a daily infection rate of less than 14 positive cases per 100,000 residents. Those in counties with a daily average of more than 14 positive cases — currently all but two counties — would have to be tested every week.
School administrators worry about the logistics and costs of such a comprehensive testing program. Newsom says that private insurance plans would cover the costs of those who are insured, or MediCal. Fortunately, all but 3.6% of young people between 0 and 20 years have some form of health coverage in California, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
But districts report that health plans are declining to pay for asymptomatic testing, and employees have to rely on county or state testing sites, where there are often long waits, making regular testing of staff difficult if not impossible. Administrators worry that they will have to cover the costs of testing themselves, which would easily eat up the funds per students they would receive from the state.
In addition, the logistics of making sure that all staff and students are tested on a regular basis remain daunting. Sources says Newsom is expected to provide more details soon about how the state will support testing programs, but these have yet to be announced.
Possible disparate impact on districts serving low-income students in areas with high infection rates
In a highly critical letter to Newsom, the superintendents of some of the state’s largest school districts (Los Angeles, San Diego, Long Beach, San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento) expressed concerns that districts like theirs serving predominantly low-income communities, where infection rates are generally higher than in more affluent communities, would not qualify for funds through the “Safe Schools for All” plan. The plan requires districts that have not yet opened for in-person instruction to have an average daily rate of less than 28 positive cases per 100,000 residents. “A funding model which supports only schools in communities less impacted by the virus is at odds with California’s long-standing efforts to provide more support to students from low-income families,” the superintendents said. “If nothing changes, many students in high-need communities are at risk of being left behind.”
Getting buy-in from teachers’ unions
Gov. Newsom’s plan requires school districts to get support from teachers’ unions before they can reopen, which means that reopening plans would have to be negotiated with teachers district by district. But taking issue with a central element of Newsom’s plan, the California Teachers Association is saying that schools shouldn’t open for in-person instruction in counties that are still in the purple tier. Given that all but two counties (Alpine and Sierra) are currently in the purple zone, making concrete plans for reopening schools will be difficult without assurances that teachers will agree to participate. The seven superintendents are asking Newsom to impose a uniform standard for reopening for in-person instruction, and then to require schools to reopen once they meet that standard, regardless of opposition from labor unions or anyone else.
Shortage of teacher substitutes and other staff
A big unknown for some districts is whether they will have the staff they need to provide in-person instruction — in addition to distance learning for children whose parents wish to stick with remote instruction. More teachers are expected to call in sick because of having to quarantine or sequester after exposure or possible exposure to the virus. In some districts, teachers at greater risk may choose to take a leave rather than take the chance of exposure in the classroom. Typically, these vacancies could be filled by substitute teachers. The problem is that even before the pandemic many districts were experiencing difficulties finding substitutes. In fact, there has been a precipitous decline in the number of substitute credentials issued in California. As reported by EdSource, over a six-month period in 2020, there were 22,236 applicants for substitute credentials. That was down from 31,871 for the same period in 2019, and 42,300 in 2018.
The problem is especially acute in rural areas where the shortages are most severe. The situation is so bad that Tim Taylor, executive director of the Small School Districts’ Association, describes the substitute shortage as “a code-red issue” for rural schools.
Another challenge is that implementing health and safety practices could require additional non-teaching staff. Scott Borba, superintendent of the Le Grand Union Elementary School District in Merced County, for example, says his district needs more custodians to sanitize school facilities.
Slow pace of vaccinations, with school employees not yet on the priority list
The availability of vaccines could make a big difference in convincing school staff to return to school, as well as to parents who for health reasons may be reluctant to have their children back in school.
State officials are saying that they hope to vaccinate 1 million people over a 10 day period in January. But there are numerous unknowns regarding not only the pace of vaccinations but who will be receiving them. It seems certain that teachers and other school employees will soon be placed on the priority list (Phase 1B) to receive the vaccinations. It is unclear when that would happen, whether the state will set a list of priorities for which school employees and in which schools or counties should be vaccinated first, and whether this will happen quickly enough to open schools this spring.
Uncertainties about state and federal funds to cover education and health costs
Currently, it is not entirely clear how much money districts can expect to get from the state and federal governments to get them through this school year — and whether the federal government will come up with additional funds after Joe Biden becomes president. The Georgia runoff election results make it more likely that more funds will be forthcoming, but that won’t be known for weeks, at best. EdSource has come up with estimates about how much districts can expect to receive from the federal government’s $900 billion relief bill approved in September, but these are only estimates. When it comes to state funding, districts will have a clearer idea about where they stand after Gov. Newsom announces his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year this week.
Finding a pathway for in-person instruction for middle and high school students
Gov. Newsom’s plan does not provide a pathway for middle and high school students to return to school. In fact, it is silent on the issue. If state regulations are still in force, school communities would be limited in what they can do on infection rates in their counties coming into the red, orange or yellow tiers before middle or high school students could even be considered for in-person instruction. Because of the dire situation in the state now, it is impossible to predict whether that will occur in time for students and staff to return to school before May.
Overcoming divisions within school communities on in-person instruction
The entire issue of reopening schools is an emotional one, with different people having different comfort levels and needs regarding in-person instruction. In some communities, some parents feel passionately about the need to get children back to school as soon as possible, while other parents feel just the opposite. In many districts, teachers have been especially reluctant to return to their classrooms because of health concerns, often leading to stressful negotiations. Complicating the entire discussion is that school officials have limited time to figure out the best way to get students back to school this academic year.