A fifth-grade student in school collaborates with a classmate learning from home. (Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education)

District and county superintendents, school advocates and union leaders reacted Wednesday to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan for reopening elementary schools for in-person instruction with hope, enthusiasm and skepticism.

Newsom is proposing to give $2 billion — from $450 to about $700 per student — to school districts that agree to extensive COVID-19 testing and other requirements for phasing in transitional kindergarten to second grade as early as Feb. 15. Students in grades third to sixth would follow a month later.

Many educators and advocates praised Newsom for making schools a priority, including his preference for pushing up teachers and other school employees in the waiting line for COVID-19 vaccinations. But some superintendents questioned the feasibility of ramping up extensive testing within weeks — an idea that had been pushed by the California Teachers Union, but not studied seriously by school districts.

The administration will release more information next week, and the Legislature, which must approve the spending, will then have its say over the details. Meanwhile, there is hope on New Year’s Eve among parents that at least young children may be back in class by early spring.

For EdSource report on the plan, go here

Debra Duardo, Los Angeles County superintendent of schools

I am grateful to Gov. Newsom for his leadership in providing guidance for schools that offers more consistency across counties through a coordinated approach and additional resources.

Returning students to school campuses in a safe environment is a priority. I look forward to engaging our 80 district superintendents in conversations about the governor’s new plan for schools in January, working hand-in-hand with L.A. County Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer, as we have done from the start of the pandemic.

Furthermore, I continue to urge the state to prioritize the vaccination of K-12 and early education teachers, administrators and staff as an essential step in getting our public schools and early learning and care centers fully reopened.

E. Toby Boyd, president, California Teachers Association

The safety of students, their families and educators must be the top priority. We appreciate the governor finally recognizing what CTA, for months, has been advocating for in order to safely reopen schools for in-person instruction. In all our conversations and letters sent, we have been calling for tougher safety standards, rigorous and consistent testing, data collection and transparency.

While these tenets are addressed in the proposal released Wednesday (Dec. 30), there are many unanswered questions and the devil is always in the details. We look forward to hearing more information and hope the new guidelines will create a coherent statewide plan rather than creating more confusion for parents and school districts.

As California remains the nation’s COVID hot spot and amidst an ICU crisis, CTA continues to support distance learning for schools that are in the highest, Purple Tier of transmission rates. We will continue our conversations with lawmakers and the governor. This must be a joint effort to ensure a safe return to our classrooms where we know our students learn best and thrive.

Myrna Castrejón, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association

We applaud the governor’s commitment to returning transitional kindergarten through second grade students to in-person instruction as soon as February.

Moreover, we encourage the governor and the Legislature to complement the plan and these resources with additional instructional and operational flexibilities to support serving as many students as possible in-person, including phasing in additional grade levels, as possible.

Charter public schools that have successfully restarted in-person instruction during this school year have done so by rethinking their instructional models and deploying their teachers and other personnel to focus on serving students safely through small groups and using social distancing strategies. As we move to increase our ability to reopen safely, such flexibilities will be crucial to making this plan a success.”

Alexander Cherniss, superintendent of Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified

The funding is helpful; however, the state’s intent is for schools to utilize these funds toward a robust COVID testing program, which is currently nonexistent. I suggest that the state figures out how schools can rapidly test students and staff before sending us money to do so.

John Affeldt, managing attorney for Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm

The pandemic and remote learning are delivering a double dose of harm to California public education. Black and brown students especially are falling further behind academically and socio-emotionally and the school system as a whole is losing credibility with the public, despite heroic efforts. The solution to both problems is getting students back on campus safely, in person with their teachers and their peers.

The proposal announced today (Wednesday) holds real promise to accelerate that effort and to avoid surrendering the whole year as lost to the pandemic. To succeed, it will be important to reopen with equity in mind by ensuring that funding and opportunities prioritize the most-impacted students first with attention to their academic and social-emotional well-being. Secondly, community stakeholders, including parents, students and teachers, must be meaningfully involved in planning how to safely and securely return to physical classrooms.

Jorge Aguilar, Sacramento City Unified superintendent 

Today’s announcement of grants and support, as well as upcoming detailed requirements for reopening our schools is welcome and necessary. We look forward to reviewing the proposed plan and specific criteria to properly support our students through in-person learning when it is safe to do so. We, of course, share in our state’s commitment to protecting the health and safety of our students, staff and community through distribution of PPE, adequate testing, vaccinations and contact tracing so that we can get back to in-person learning.

Over the past few months, we have operated Learning Hubs at our school sites to offer in-person support for our most vulnerable students. These Learning Hubs use a small cohort-based model and are currently at seven SCUSD campuses. We plan to expand this program in the next month and will continue other preparations to allow all of our students the opportunity to begin a phased-in return to in-person learning.

Bob Nelson, Fresno Unified superintendent 

We have worked hard on a collective plan for our district that we believe balances a safe return with the need to get our schools normalized, and, at this point, we are not deviating from that expressed plan as we review the new information released this morning.

As always, we will pursue a measured and moderate response to this politically-charged, constantly shifting situation. We will continue to prioritize safety, stability and high-quality instruction, just as we have prior.

Don Austin, Palo Alto Unified superintendent 

The plan, in my opinion, will be another barrier to reopening. The logistics around testing students is enough to block everything. We have a dedicated team to test 250 employees every two weeks. Even that is huge — 1,250 tests given at a cost of $77 each and one positive. Imagine a big school district trying to test TK-5.

Districts will find it is going to be hard to negotiate the safety plan. We have a signed agreement and authority to be open and so will remain open.

I am very happy we pushed ahead so early. We will not go for the money.

Karen Monroe, superintendent, Alameda County superintendent of schools

Gov. Newsom’s Safe Schools for All plan to provide vital resources to school districts to facilitate the phased opening of elementary schools for in-class instruction is a critical step toward the goal we all share of returning our children to schools, and demonstrates an important commitment by the state and the governor to support those efforts.

What is needed now is the implementation of concrete strategies to create safe learning environments including: uniform standards for testing of staff and students; robust contact tracing; priority access to vaccinations for teachers and school staff; information and transparency to school communities; and the funding and resources to support the safety measures that districts must put in place.

In addition, I will continue to strongly advocate for districts to preserve and expand their ability to return small groups of students who are in the most urgent need of access to in-person instruction, as is currently allowable under state guidance.

Xanthi Pinkerton, Elk Grove Unified spokeswoman

In our communication with our Elk Grove Unified community, staff and families, we had anticipated being able to restart our phase-in process toward in-person concurrent learning no sooner than Jan. 21, but imminently contingent upon health conditions.

In light of this new information, we will certainly review the details of the proposal, work with our public health and labor partners and communicate next steps. Student and staff safety and learning continuity remain our top priorities. We want everyone to continue best practices for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 as we cautiously and carefully begin to emerge from the grasp of this pandemic.

Peter Livingston, Lucerne Valley Unified superintendent 

I’m glad to see the shift in focus towards bringing students back to school now, as long as you have the correct precautions in place. We have been doing all of that since day one and it does work. That direction from the state is a positive. Once staff is vaccinated, I would hope we can bring in more students at the older grade levels. Just looking at the rate of Ds and Fs in high school, we need to get those kids back.

The funding in Newsom’s reopening plan is appreciated and will be a huge support. It would cover a large portion of the costs we had to bring students back safely. And when you tie that to the federal stimulus money, that will really benefit us. Putting those pots of money together is more than enough for our current reopening plan.

Scott Borba, superintendent of Le Grand Union Elementary School District in Merced County

It’s about time. Taxpayers are paying for the kids to get educated, and that’s not happening through distance learning. Since October, we have been using a hybrid model and almost 80% of our students have come back. So when the governor announces more funding to open schools, the cynic inside me says, “What about additional schools that have already been open?”

We should be rewarding the people who have been going back in the middle of the pandemic to support students. That said, the additional funding will be huge because we have hit some barriers this year around staffing shortages. I need more custodians to clean more frequently. And what do I do about teachers who have to quarantine because they were exposed, and I can’t find a sub anywhere?

Torie Gibson, Penn Valley Union Elementary School District superintendent 

As a superintendent, it’s a relief to have someone above saying this is what you are going to do. We have been put in a tough position and do our best to navigate the seas, but when they say it’s up to individual districts on how to handle things, they are passing the buck. And there are so many politics involved in all of this that are out of our hands. So I’m appreciative of the fact they are giving us a lot more direction that will allow us to have a real solid plan going forward.

The biggest piece that I’m waiting for clarity on is if we have to still require distance learning. If they require both, whatever that may look like, that makes it really difficult because we need more teachers. We have had teacher positions open all year long and still haven’t been able to fill them all. If they give us flexibility with the funding, it’s going to be really helpful. But if we have to go through a model with both distance learning and in-person happening simultaneously, then it wouldn’t be enough.

I was really hoping they would have an executive order so all staff has to get vaccinated just like we do with a TB test. If we can’t require it, how can we guarantee that we won’t do this open-close-open-close?

Tim Taylor, executive director of the Small School Districts Association

I think they came up with a good approach about how we can get kids back to school safely and move forward. And like everything else, we had to get it going even though it’s a bad time case-wise to talk about this. The majority of schools that have been open face-to-face in hybrid models have mostly been small schools. They’re the ones that have really done due diligence, so let’s make sure they are rewarded because they have spent a lot of money to do that.

Schools that want to return to face-to-face have to submit new reopening plans, and we also want to protect the schools already doing that. Don’t make them do a new plan. Schools that are already open should be able to stay open and keep doing their thing. We have had very few cases of transmission in schools that have opened face-to-face, and it’s because of diligence over safety on school reopening.

Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers

With a significant commitment of state funding, a priority on safety and a framework for collaboration, we believe the California’s Safe Schools for All Plan is the starting point our state and its schools need to consider for in-person instruction as vaccines become available for educational employees. Each school community is different, and local plans that reflect local needs and that include the voices of experienced education professionals will be critical for success.

With this plan as a starting point, the CFT looks forward to working to ensure that schools reopen for in-person instruction in a way that demonstrates that safety is paramount and that our schools are funded at a level that supports needed testing, tracing, PPE and high-quality instruction.

Sergio Reyes, Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, spokesman 

As the Safe Schools for All plan was just released this morning, Sen. Leyva is still reviewing the particulars of the proposal and does not yet know the level of support from her fellow legislative colleagues. As the senator noted in her quote included in the governor’s press release earlier today, she believes that the framework is a positive step forward to make sure that every child in California has the ability to receive quality instruction. Sen. Leyva believes that in-person instruction is certainly best, but it must be done as safely as possible.

Al Mijares, Orange County superintendent of schools

Amid the challenges and disruptions we’ve faced during the pandemic, we are grateful to the governor and the Legislature for their commitment to making sure schools remain a top priority and for continuing to pursue opportunities to increase student attendance, especially for our most vulnerable populations.

As we’ve seen with Orange County districts that have reopened their campuses to students, resuming in-person instruction requires great collaboration and consensus on multiple fronts. We recognize now may not be the time to reopen all campuses, especially in those areas hardest hit by COVID-19. Yet we remain optimistic that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we will continue our fight to prevent learning loss and to establish systems of instructional delivery that support students at home and in the classroom.

Max Arias, executive director of SEIU Local 99, representing school workers

Homeless students, poor students, foster students and others who lack the space or the resources to maintain learning at home have faced overwhelming challenges. The longer such students are cut off from the support and community they need, the greater the disparities in educational opportunity will grow. This is an urgent and growing problem, and it affects Black and brown children disproportionately.

As we move into 2021, we look forward to moving safely and with due caution to more and more in-person instruction. We appreciate the governor’s focus on the safety and health of students, all school workers and our communities through strong safety standards and technical and financial support from the state. This will ensure that workers and students are protected through PPE, testing and other safety measures.

* EdSource writers Sydney Johnson, Michael Burke and Karen D’Souza conducted interviews for this article. 

Story originally published by EdSource.