Newsom announces $2B incentive plan to reopen in-person learning at elementary schools

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday announced a $2 billion package of financial incentives to encourage a return to in-person classroom instruction for California elementary school students as early as mid-February.

The reopening plan was driven by increasing evidence that there are lower risks and increased benefits from in-person instruction particularly for the youngest students, he said. It comes amid increased pressure on schools to reopen campuses based on those rationales.

"As a father of four, I know firsthand what parents, educators and pediatricians continue to say: in-person is the best setting to meet not only the learning needs, but the mental health and social-emotional needs of our kids," Newsom said. 

The elementary schools would have to submit a safety plan, which local health departments can approve or not in five days. 

The proposal won’t immediately open any additional school campuses as coronavirus surges across the nation and state. 

But Newsom’s plan emphasizes the return of students in the youngest grades, in kindergarten through 2nd grade, along with students who have special needs. The remainder of elementary school students could return as early as some time in March. 

The plan did not immediately address older students.

It remains unclear just how quickly many districts will qualify, especially those in large urban areas in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area.

In a statement, the California Teachers Association President Toby Boyd said its union members appreciated the fact that Newsom addressed tougher safety standards before reopening in person. Still, Boyd said: "There are many unanswered questions and the devil is always in the details, particularly as it relates to implementation and execution."

As California remains the nation’s COVID hotspot and amidst an ICU crisis, Boyd said his members continue to support distance learning for schools that are in the highest, purple tier of transmission rates. 

Newsom called for a phased approach focusing first on those in transitional kindergarten through second grade, as well as children with disabilities, those who have limited access to technology at home and those who he said "have struggled more than most with distance learning."

Other grades would be phased in during the spring, but remote learning would continued to be allowed if parents and students wish, and for those who have health vulnerabilities that make it risky to return to the classroom.

Aside from the $2 billion in assistance that Newsom said he will include in his proposed budget next month, he said his administration will push for safety measures.

Those include frequent testing for all students and staff, up to weekly testing in areas with high rates of virus transmission. All students and staffs should have masks, there should be increased contact tracing for those who test positive for the virus, and he backed making school staff a priority for vaccinations.

Dr. Naomi Bardach, a University of California, San Francisco, pediatrician and expert on school safety, will lead what Newsom is calling a Safe Schools for All Team composed of state health, education and occupational safety representatives. He said the team will help schools with their safety plans and provide support materials for educators.

The state will also have a website where parents and students can see their school’s reopening status, state funding, and any school outbreaks. It will also have a way for educators and parents to report any problems or concerns, which he said will allow the state to impose what his office called "escalating levels of intervention beginning with technical assistance and ending with legal enforcement."

KTVU's Greg Lee and the Associated Press contributed to this report.