California’s New 6.6 Billion Dollar Bill Spark Bay Area School Reopenings

As cases all across California decline and more teachers get vaccinated, many school districts are planning to begin reopening by mid-April.

After+a+year+of+distance+learning%2C+more+parents+are+pressuring+school+districts+to+resume+in-person+learning.+

Eugene Garcia/EPA, via Shutterstock

After a year of distance learning, more parents are pressuring school districts to resume in-person learning.

Jason Lin

On March 19, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a statewide order to shelter at home, restricting all non-essential travel and outside activities. Schools across California were shut down and distance learning began. After nearly a year of distance learning across California, school reopenings are beginning in an effort to return to normalcy.

As of March 16, California surpassed 400,000 teacher vaccinations, which encompassed roughly 35% of the 1.4 million teachers employed across the state [MSN]. With 10% of the state’s vaccine supply being purely for teachers, the state has high hopes for a full reopening of all schools by the end of May. Beyond vaccinations, Governor Newsom is implementing a 6.6 billion dollar reopening plan that sets aside 2 billion dollars for school districts that reopen by April 1. 

“That’s what we have all been waiting for,” Newsom states. “We are one of the first states to set aside 10% of all our first dose vaccines to educators and now we are seeing that replicated across the country. We are encouraged by all this progress.” [MSN]

The newly passed California’s Safe Schools for All Plan permits elementary schools to open in counties in the purple tier with 25 new cases per 100,000 residents. Grades 7 through 12 are permitted to reopen in counties with the red, orange, or yellow tiers and have an incidence rate of seven or less.[Edsource]

All of these incentives have pushed many large school districts to already reopen. The Oakland Unified School District, for example, will be starting in-person learning by March 30 and will fully reopen elementary schools by April 19. Based on projections of the plan, nearly 13,000 students will be returning to the classroom by mid-April.

“Getting our students safely back to a more normal routine will go a long way to fostering their education and their mental, physical and emotional well-being,” said OUSD school board president, Shanthi Gonzales [MSN].

In Los Angeles, new state developments have provided Los Angeles Unified and United Teachers of Los Angeles support needed for their reopening. The project to return elementary students to daily in-person instruction by mid-April, with alternating morning and afternoon cohorts to minimize congregation and potential spread of the virus. High schools will continue distance learning, but will also be allowed to begin holding college and career lessons in person. 

Furthermore, Los Angeles is taking extra precautions in the wake of school reopenings. The agreement between Los Angeles Unified and United Teachers of Los Angeles requires full vaccinations for all school staff, low community COVID-19 rates, weekly virus testing, and upgraded ventilation systems in addition to standard protocols like masking and social distancing. The district has already spent more than $120 million to upgrade air-filtration systems, hire additional custodial staff and buy more personal protective equipment [MSN].

In smaller school districts, reopenings are occurring at an even faster rate. The San Diego Unified School District is planning for April 12 with both online and in-person options [San Diego]. Chula Vista Elementary School District plans for two-, three-hour cohorts of students with 155 minutes of instruction beginning April 12 [Chula].

East Side Union High School District [ESUHSD] has also announced plans for in-school learning. On April 19, phase 3 will be implemented and students will begin coming back to school in 16 people indoor cohorts or 32 people outdoor cohorts. Cohorts will meet up to five days a week and students may participate in up to two cohorts during this time. During phase 3, ESUHSD plans to ensure voluntary student testing every two weeks as well as tracking to ensure student safety. Furthermore, the school district plans to enforce a 1,000 person limit on the number of people who can attend campus at one time. 

Within cohorts themselves, a multitude of changes is planned to ensure student safety while on campus. Beyond regular testing and tracking, regular disinfection and cleaning schedules are planned for classrooms and restrooms after each daily cohort session. Social distancing of six feet and mask-wearing will be mandatory for students and staff. Adequate supplies of soup, disinfectants, face coverings, and hand sanitizer will also be provided to schools to support a hygienic and safe environment. 

“When vaccines became widely accessible, that was a game-changer. I am now ready to say let’s bring our teachers back and students back who want to be back,” says ESUHSD Superintendent Chris Funk. 

All these reopenings are occurring at a crucial time, with the school year drawing to a close many parents remain unhappy with the quality of education that distance learning has provided. A judge ruled on Monday in favor of North County, San Diego, parents who have sued the state for unfairly prohibiting local school districts from reopening. The allegations come from San Diego Superior Court Judge Cynthia Freeland’s temporary restraining order on the state’s January plan for reopening school which parents have found “arbitrary”. 

“We have been working hard at this for an entire year,” Melanie Burkholder, a parent in the lawsuit, said. “It is just so amazing to have the victory—a judge that says there’s an injunction now against the state where they can’t impose these ridiculous nonscientific orders on students.” [NewsWeek]

Overall, parents are most unhappy with distance learning because of the mental stress and strain it has placed on their children. In the court proceedings mentioned above, plaintiffs testified that some of their kids have expressed suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide after hearing the news that remote learning would continue. With new legal pressures to reopen and ever-decreasing levels of COVID-19, California finds itself at the forefront of school reopenings and may very well reach its goal of full reopening by April or the new school year. 

“I believe that a lot of our students have exhibited their creativity and demonstrated their learning in different forms that we never would have seen if we were in-person,” explains ESUHSD Superintendent Chris Funk. “Hopefully we can take the best practices of distance learning and the positive things that have happened during the pandemic and incorporate them in education as we move forward.”