“You can’t reopen your economy unless you get your schools reopened,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom at the top of his press conference with legislative leaders on Monday to announce a multibillion-dollar deal aimed at enticing schools to resume in-person instruction for young students 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.
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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 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 demanded Covid vaccinations for its members. Newsom has said he is setting 10% — a minimum of 75,000 — of the state’s doses aside for educators to get them vaccinated quickly.
According to the LA Times, LA Unified school superintendent Austin Beutner hailed the commitment.
“On Thursday and Friday, we’ll actually be using the two large FEMA sites to vaccinate educators,” said Newsom on Monday. But ongoing negotiations with employee unions could still delay a return to in-person instruction.
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.
Under the proposed legislative incentive package being announced Monday, schools in counties that advance out of the state’s “purple” tier and into the less-restrictive “red” tier — with a new COVID case rate of 7 per 100,000 residents and positivity rate less than 8% — would required to open all elementary grades and at least one middle or high school grade to qualify for the incentive funds.
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.
While the goal of the legislation is to get young students back to campus by April 1, the Los Angeles Unified School District is unlikely to meet that date. District Superintendent Austin Beutner has set a target date of April 9 for reopening elementary schools, but the powerful teachers’ union — United Teachers Los Angeles — has not agreed to that 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.”
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.
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 proposed April 9 date for school reopening, much less the state’s new April 1 date.
The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that the state plans to earmark enough vaccine to the LAUSD by the end of next week to get its staff inoculated and reopen elementary schools. Beutner has previously put that number at 25,000 doses. Newsom said Monday that the state will set aside at least 75,000 doses for educators statewide.
City News Service contributed to this report.