UPDATE: Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 5 signed the $6.6 billion legislative package that lawmakers had passed the day before intended to support the statewide reopening of grades K-6 by the end of the month and grades 7-12 in early April. The package includes $2 billion in grants to support safety measures for students and educators returning to in-person classes, including personal protective equipment, improvements to classroom ventilation and regular coronavirus testing. The remaining $4.6 billion will fund voluntary learning expansions, including extending the school year into the summer, tutoring to make up for learning lost amid the pandemic and mental health services for students.
The day after announcing legislation that would provide $6.6 billion to incentivize school districts to resume in-person instruction, Gov. Gavin Newsom visited Barron Park Elementary School in Palo Alto, praising the district as a model that proves schools throughout the state can reopen safely.
Newsom said the new reopening package, on which legislators will vote on Thursday, coupled with declining hospitalizations, the state's 2.3% positivity rate and increasing vaccine availability, particularly for teachers, should help more schools reopen safely. Palo Alto Unified's 12 elementary schools, including Barron Park, have been open for hybrid learning since October, and sixth graders returned to school for the first time on Tuesday morning. With Santa Clara County moving into the red tier on Wednesday, middle and high schoolers will be back in classrooms, starting next week, for the first time in nearly a year (though they'll still be learning on Zoom, but in a room with peers and a teacher). The district anticipates that more than 5,000 of its 12,000 students, from kindergarteners to high school seniors, will be back on campuses next week, a major milestone for the district.
"Today we are really celebrating success," Newsom said of the district's reopening. "We can do this. We can keep our kids safe."
The new state legislation, SB 86 and AB 86, provides $2 billion to school districts to support — though not mandate — the reopening of schools as part of a larger, $6.6 billion education funding package. The extra money is meant to encourage districts to bring teachers, students and staff back to campuses, and can be used for anything from personal protective equipment and improving classroom ventilation to COVID-19 testing. School districts have until March 31 to reopen to tap into the full funding.
Newsom said the funding should help assuage teachers' anxieties about returning to work in person and also bolster school districts with fewer resources and in communities that have been hard hit by the coronavirus.
"Not every part of the state has the same resources as this district," he said of Palo Alto Unified. "No one is naive about that."
He said the state's economic revival is dependent on reopening schools, which allows parents to go back to work. He acknowledged that school closures have disproportionately affected working parents and single mothers in particular. The bills include $4.6 billion for extended class time and summer school.
California is expected to receive 1.64 million COVID-19 vaccine doses in the coming weeks, Newsom said. The state has set aside 75,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccines, or 10% of the total supply, for teachers and is designating teacher vaccine days. Santa Clara County opened a new site Monday aimed at vaccinating education workers. Palo Alto Unified was selected this week for a priority vaccination program for employees in partnership with the Santa Clara County Office of Education — not a requirement to return to work in person but "another level of support and safety for everyone involved," Superintendent Don Austin said.
Austin thanked Newsom for his "clear direction to the state of California that kids belong in schools" and for providing funding to make in-person learning happen safely.
Palo Alto Unified Board of Education President Shounak Dharap encouraged other school boards that are tackling the "gargantuan" task of reopening schools to prioritize flexibility.
"You have to bend like a reed without breaking like a twig," he said. "Districts have to be flexible ... because things are going to change."
State Sen. Josh Becker, D-Menlo Park, and Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, also attended Tuesday's press conference. They emphasized the importance of reopening schools for students' academic and emotional wellbeing.
Becker, who recently called for the immediate vaccination of educators in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, said the state's new reopening package "gives us hope" and "provides a pathway to get our kids back and restore some of their childhood."
"Our kids can't afford to lose more classroom time," said Becker, who is himself a parent of two high school students. "We're at risk of losing a generation of students to distance learning."
Under the proposed legislation, April 1 starts a clock for districts to reopen and if they don't, they lose 1% of their share of the money. If they fail to reopen by May 15, they forfeit all of the money.
"I'd like to think $2 billion in incentive grants to address their anxieties, the prioritization of vaccinations and what's at stake would drive a more aggressive narrative to give it a try and do it right," Newsom said. "With respect, I know it may be difficult to change the paradigm of thinking, but we have that capacity. Our experience and science dictate we can do this safely."
Newsom said he won't be ordering schools to reopen in the fall and is hopeful that working together will be more productive. He agreed with the Biden administration's prediction that by July there will be "an abundance of vaccines," paving a path to five days a week of in-person school by the fall. (By this story's publication, President Biden announced there would be enough doses of the vaccine for the entire adult population by the end of May.)
When asked about the fits and starts of reopening and the possibility of another lockdown, Newsom said that with declining hospitalization rates and vaccinations ramping up, California is better prepared now to absorb a "modest surge." He encouraged the public to "maintain the vigilance" and continue to follow health precautions even as schools, restaurants and other businesses reopen.
Before speaking to the media, a masked Newsom visited a first-grade classroom where he read "I Believe I Can" by Grace Byers to students, and a fifth-grade classroom where one student explained, from behind a plexiglass divider at his desk, a math problem to the governor.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.