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Deal Reached To Get California Children Back In Classrooms

The Montgomery Middle School playground is pictured in San Diego, Feb. 17, 20...

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: The Montgomery Middle School playground is pictured in San Diego, Feb. 17, 2021.

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California’s public schools could get $6.6 billion from the state Legislature if they return to in-person instruction by the end of March, according to a new agreement announced Monday between ... Read more →

Aired: March 2, 2021 | Transcript

California’s public schools could get $6.6 billion from the state Legislature if they return to in-person instruction by the end of March, according to a new agreement announced Monday between Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state’s legislative leaders.

California, the most populous U.S. state, has 1,037 public school districts, more than 6.1 million students and about 319,000 teachers.

Most public school classes have not been held in-person since March of last year because of the coronavirus. Many districts have struggled to reach agreements with teachers’ unions on the best way to return students and staff to the classroom.

Reported by Joe Hong

Newsom, who could face a recall election later this year spurred by his handling of the coronavirus, has been at odds with legislative leaders on the best way to encourage school districts to return students to the classroom. California can’t order schools to return to in-person instruction, but state officials can offer a lot of money to those that do.

RELATED: Tracking COVID-19 In San Diego

The agreement sets aside $6.6 billion for schools that return to optional in-person instruction by March 31. The bill is a deal between Newsom, state Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, all Democrats. It was confirmed by Atkins’ office. Newsom’s office has scheduled a formal announcement for late Monday morning.

The details of the plan are complicated and were confirmed by two state officials with knowledge of the plan who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about it publicly.

San Diego Unified School Board President Richard Barrera says the district could qualify for up to $100 million of this additional funding. However, last week the district announced it will begin its next phase of reopening on April 12. But since the district’s spring break is the last week of March and teachers are scheduled back on April 5, Barrera says the district should still get a full share.

“It allows us to have a week where our staff is on campus preparing and getting trained in all the mitigation strategies that are necessary to keep everybody safe in order for us to bring students back on April 12th,” he said.

Another caveat is that in February district officials reached an agreement with the teachers union to not reopen schools until after all teachers are vaccinated. Teachers Union President Kisha Borden said they will not be changing the agreement to meet the state’s April 1st deadline.

“Many educators receive their first dose of the vaccine over the weekend,” Borden said. “Most of those educators received the Moderna dose, which requires four weeks between doses, so I’m not sure if an April 1st deadline is even possible.”

California counties are divided up into different coronavirus infection level tiers, with each tier having specific rules about how businesses and other public spaces can operate during the pandemic.

To be eligible for this new money, school districts in regions that fall under the most restrictive level -- known as the purple tier -- must return to in-person instruction at least through second grade, the officials said.

Districts must also have in-person instruction for special populations of students in all grades, the officials said, including the disabled, foster youth, the homeless, English learners, students without access to technology and students at risk of abuse and neglect.

Districts in the next highest tier, the red tier, must return to in-person instruction for all elementary school grades, plus at least one grade in middle and high school, the officials said.

The money will be distributed through the normal funding method that provides local districts with state money, the officials said, which would ensure more money for schools that serve primarily low-income students. In addition, the officials said districts would get an additional $1,000 for every homeless student they have.

To get the money, districts must meet the requirements by March 31, the officials said. Beginning April 1, for every instructional day school districts do not meet the requirements, the amount of money they are eligible to receive will go down by 1%, the officials said.

The bill would not require all students and staff to be vaccinated before returning to the classroom. And it would not require districts to get approval from teachers’ unions before returning, the officials said.

The officials said testing is required for schools in the purple tier. But school districts that have already reopened or have plans to reopen in March would be exempt from testing requirements, the officials said.

KPBS reporter Joe Hong contributed to this story.

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