“You can’t reopen your economy unless you get your schools reopened,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom at the top of his Monday press conference. Newsom joined legislative leaders at the event to announce a multibillion-dollar deal aimed at enticing TK-2 schools to resume in-person instruction by April 1. The agreement, however, may end up penalizing districts like LA Unified.
The deal — which still needs formal legislative approval — would create a $2 billion incentive pool, with money doled out to schools that reopen campuses for students in kindergarten through second grade, as well as high-need students of all ages.
“We expect that all of our TK-2 classrooms reopen in the next 30 days,” said the governor.
Schools that fail to open by April 1 will lose 1% of their portion of the funds for every day they miss the deadline.
The money would be available to schools in counties that have an average daily new Covid-19 case rate of less than 25 per 100,000 residents. Los Angeles County and other Southern California counties meet that goal, although all remain in the most restrictive “purple tier” of the state’s Covid reopening roadmap.
The LA Unified teachers’ union has demanded Covid vaccinations for its members. Newsom said he is setting 10% — a minimum of 75,000 — of the state’s doses aside for educators to get them vaccinated quickly. LA Unified school superintendent Austin Beutner previously said the district would need 25,000 doses.
Beutner hailed Newsom’s commitment as “a game-changer” saying on Monday, “The Governor has dedicated access for 25,000 additional vaccine doses for school staff in Los Angeles Unified over the next two weeks…This plan will allow us to complete during the next two weeks vaccinations for school staff who are already working at school sites, staff who are working with our youngest learners and those working with students with learning differences and disabilities.”
But as California’s vaccine rollout has shown thus far, the actual execution of even the best-laid plans can prove challenging.
In terms of the vaccine administration, “On Thursday and Friday, we’ll actually be using the two large FEMA sites to vaccinate educators,” Newsom said on Monday. Even with LAUSD expected to receive about 40% of vaccine doses in the county set aside for education workers, it was unlikely that all elementary school teachers would be vaccinated in time to meet Beutner’s previously proposed April 9 date for school reopening, much less the state’s new April 1 date.
According to the LA Times on Monday:
Despite that welcome news, the nation’s second-largest school district hedged on a previously announced target reopening date of April 9, shifting instead to “mid-April” in documents released Monday. An early April timeline would be tight if local officials waited until school district employees achieved maximum immunity, which takes five to six weeks after the first dose of the two vaccines most widely available.
Under existing state guidelines, schools in counties that meet the 25 cases per 100,000 residents threshold are authorized — but not required — to resume in-person classes for students in pre kindergarten through sixth grade.
The proposed incentive package would require schools in counties that advance out of the state’s “purple” tier and into the less-restrictive “red” tier — with a Covid case rate of 7 per 100,000 residents and positivity rate less than 8% — to open all elementary grades and at least one middle or high school grade to qualify for the incentive funds.
Buetner expressed reservations about differing evaluations of the red tier’s risks. “We expect to see the State Legislature and Governor agree on budgets and the guidelines for school reopening sometime this week. It’s important these state standards align with federal standards,” he said. “The current federal CDC guidelines tell us red means Covid is high, which is bad. In California, red means Covid levels are improving and schools can open, which is good. Those need to be consistent.”
WATCH: Superintendent Austin Beutner's Update to the School Community
VEA: Mensaje del superintendente Austin Beutner a la comunidad escolar. Haga clic en el botón [CC] en el video si desea activar los subtítulos en español.https://t.co/EEmEKHOxNM pic.twitter.com/6uSrKZLMDu
— Los Angeles Unified (@LASchools) March 1, 2021
The legislative package also includes another $4.6 billion in general funding for all schools to help fund required safety improvements on campuses and make up for learning time lost during the pandemic.
Ongoing negotiations with employee unions could still delay a return to in-person instruction. United Teachers Los Angeles has not agreed to a date, which it says is subject to labor talks.
The union is demanding that all teachers and school staff be vaccinated before they return to in-person instruction. It also does not want campuses to reopen until Los Angeles County moves out of the “purple” tier. Union officials argue that while the countywide transmission rate has dropped below the 25 per 100,000 residents threshold, many neighborhoods the LAUSD serves are lower-income, and have rates that are three times as high.
UTLA’s membership is voting this week on a proposed statement of opposition to reopening campuses, saying in-person instruction cannot resume until the county is in the “red” tier; all school staff returning to in- person work “are either fully vaccinated or provided access to full vaccination”; and safety measures are in place at schools such as protective equipment, social distancing, ventilation and “a cleaning regimen.”
Teachers’ red tier requirement may be moot long before Newsom’s April 1 reopening deadline. As of last Tuesday, the county’s adjusted rate of daily new cases was 12.3 per 100,000 residents, still above the 7-per-100,000 level needed to move to the “red” tier, but down from 20 per 100,000 the week before.
“Tomorrow we are likely…to announce 7 additional counties moving into the red tier,” said Newsom on Monday. If LA’s numbers fall an equal amount as they did in the previous 7 days, the county will easily enter the red tier and be verging on the orange. And that’s not likely to stop.
“We’ll also preview tomorrow what we anticipate for next week” in terms of tier movement, promised the governor, which he characterized as “even more momentum.”
LAUSD Superintendent Beutner has supported the union’s call for vaccinations before a return to classes. Teachers and other school staff in Los Angeles County became eligible for COVID vaccines on Monday, with the LAUSD even operating a vaccination site dedicated to education workers at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.
Asked about teachers who do not want to get vaccinated Newsom said, “We do not think vaccinations are a prerequisite to reopening schools. We can move forward safely before that two dose has been administered.”
City News Service contributed to this report.