By John Fensterwald, EdSource
Five statewide organizations representing school districts and county offices of education that had refrained from commenting on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to entice school districts to begin reopening are urging major revisions they say would make the plan feasible.
Newsom is proposing $2 billion in incentives to districts that adopt a safety and health protection plan, comprehensive Covid testing procedures and a schedule to phase in the return of elementary students. Starting with transitional kindergarten through 3rd grade, they would commit to bring back students for in-person instruction starting Feb. 15, if infection rates in their counties have fallen by then — or to postpone until they do.
While crediting Newsom for taking “proactive” steps and laying out “critical components” for the return to school, the organizations are recommending modifying key elements of the governor’s strategy. They call for giving districts more flexibility to reduce the amount of Covid testing, having the state pay for all testing expenses and not giving labor unions final say over districts’ Covid safety protocols.
“Without these changes, we question the efficacy and merits of such an immense” investment of state funding, they wrote. The organizations are the California School Boards Association, the Association of California School Administrators, the California Association of School Business Officials, the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, and the Small School Districts Association.
Together with the California Teachers Association and other school labor unions, they form the Education Coalition and lobby on issues of common interest. But they are at odds with labor on several issues, including Newsom’s requirement that districts negotiate the safety plans in return for extra funding ranging from $450 to $700 per student. The organizations instead call only for showing proof of consulting with unions. It would be “inappropriate” to require negotiations, given the tight timeframe for carrying out Newsom’s plan and to force reopening talks on agreements already reached, they said.
They also call for the state to set statewide, uniform safety and health standards for in-person instruction, such as the level of Covid infections permitting a return to school. Seven of the largest urban districts in the state, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Long Beach and Fresno, made the same request in a letter they sent on Jan.6.
To receive funding under Newsom’s plan, districts would have to start the return once positive infections average are less than 25 per 100,000 residents in their county — a rate that many counties currently far exceed. That rate is the threshold for the most restrictive purple tier under the state’s classification system for opening businesses, schools and other public activities. CTA and the California Federation of Teachers continue to oppose reopening in the purple tier.
Districts want Newsom to negotiate conditions with the unions and mandate one set of standards. Not wanting to get caught in the middle, Newsom has insisted it’s a matter for districts and unions to negotiate on their own.
The management groups’ letter does not directly address Newsom’s timetable, which sets Feb. 1 as the initial deadline for districts seeking funding to submit their union-negotiated safety plans to their county offices of education for review.
But that deadline, which school organizations called too aggressive, may become moot. Newsom can’t set his plan in motion without the Legislature’s approval to spend the money, and the Assembly’s first hearing on the plan, on Jan. 25, leaves a week to pass it as proposed — or push back the deadline and change the terms.
Faced with difficult talks with unions and the daunting logistics of setting up a system for Covid testing, districts may be waiting to see what the Legislature does. Edgar Zazueta, senior director of policy and governmental relations for the Association of California School Administrators, said he’s hearing from superintendents who are shifting their attention instead to ensuring that teachers and staff can be vaccinated as soon as possible, through possible partnerships with their local health agencies.
Even though Newsom said his goal is to bring back as many students now as possible, ramping up testing for all staff and returning students may preclude districts’ participation in his program, the organizations warned. “An unrealistic amount of infrastructure, staffing, new billing operations, private and state lab capacity, testing contracts, collection and transportation of tests” pose challenges, the letter said.
Instead, the state should let districts and their county health departments work out the testing requirements “to the extent possible,” recognizing local infection patterns may vary within counties and parental consent and testing labs’ possible backlog may pose potential problems.
Protect schools already open
Last fall, before the resurgence of Covid, dozens of suburban, rural and small districts opened elementary, middle and high schools, often in a hybrid model alternating between distance learning at home and in-person at school. Some districts brought back small cohorts of the students struggling most — homeless and foster children, students with disabilities and children with poor internet service — with plans to phase in more students.
The guidance that Newsom and the California Department of Public Health released on Jan. 14 creates a bifurcated system. Schools that had opened elementary schools in the fall can now resume in-person instruction under the conditions set by their county health departments and state guidelines in effect at the time — as long as they had brought back at least one full grade of students before the current surge halted campus reopenings. Most of those districts have been testing only teachers, not students, and doing so every other month.
The organizations express concern that new requirements in the latest state guidance will force these districts to restart negotiations on previous agreements, jeopardizing reopening plans, even if they don’t intend to seek Newsom’s offer of funding.
Other recommendations in their letter include:
- Funding: The state should pay for all testing expenses with funding outside of Proposition 98, the portion of the General Fund dedicated for K-12 instruction; it should also pay for testing expenses for districts already open. And it should expand Covid relief for small districts.
- Liability protection: The state should pass legislation protecting school districts that meet state Covid safety requirements from lawsuits. The school organizations have made this request before.
- Substitute teachers: To avoid growing teacher shortages as a result of teachers who become ill or are quarantined or cannot return to school, the state should authorize emergency teaching permits and provide financial incentives for teachers and non-certified employees to be to substitutes.
Contributed by local news sources