SACRAMENTO (CBS SF/AP) — California is rolling out a $2 billion-plan to return elementary school students to in-class learning by February which involves investments in PPE, ventilation and frequent COVID testing for students, teachers and staff members.
Governor Gavin Newsom on Wednesday unveiled the “Safe Schools for All” plan which targets transitional kindergarten through second grade. The phased approach would also prioritize vulnerable communities and other students with special needs and retain a distanced learning option for families who choose it.
Per the plan, other elementary school students start returning by March. But the schedule is subject to collective bargaining agreements between school districts and labor unions.
“We’re confident in our ability to move through the pandemic and the challenges in front of us, particularly in the next 30 to 60 days,” said Newsom. “But we’re really looking at the Spring. Beginning in February or March — where are we going to be?”
READ MORE: Summary of “Safe Schools for All” Plan
Newsom said it is clear that safety and mitigation measures can prevent transmissions in the school setting. He noted that CDC data shows transmission among and from younger students is uncommon.
“And we have a basis of not just conjecture but many, many studies — CDC study shows that going to school was not associated with a higher risk of getting COVID-19,” said Newsom. “I say higher risk because no one is naïve about the risk associated with the community spread and associated risk not just with kids transmitting COVID to other children and other kids but the impacts on adult caregivers.”
The reopening plan, dubbed Safe Schools for All, will be administered by a team of health, education and occupational safety representatives led by Dr. Naomi Bardach, a University of California, San Francisco, pediatrician and expert on school safety.
“We have just brought on a world-class UCSF – by definition, anyone on UCSF staff is world-class – but Dr. Naomi Bardach is a world-class UCSF pediatrician,” said Newsom. “She also happens to be one of the leading experts on schools and issues related to epidemiology and the transmission of viruses in our public schools.”
Under the reopening plan, the state will provide free PPE and surgical masks for school staff.
“We’ve done a master contract, which we are now turning over to others to reduce the costs, and increase the volume and leverage our resources for PPE, particularly masks,” said Newsom.
The plan also includes a new online dashboard 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 Newsom said will allow the state to impose what his office called “escalating levels of intervention beginning with technical assistance and ending with legal enforcement.”
California State PTA President Celia Jaffe, in a statement provided by Newsom’s office, said the plan “is rooted in science, health and safety — all key tenets to any conversation about returning to in-person instruction.”
In a statement, California Teachers Association President E. Toby Boyd said the union would continue to support distance learning for schools in the highest, Purple Tier of transmission rates, but looks forward to additional details of the plan.
“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,” said Boyd. “While these tenets are addressed in the proposal released Wednesday, there are many unanswered questions and the devil is always in the details, particularly as it relates to implementation and execution. We look forward to hearing more information and hope the new guidelines that the Governor said would be released next week will create a coherent statewide plan rather than creating more confusion for parents and school districts.”
Current guidance from the state requires school districts to develop and implement plans to reopen campuses and allow school districts to apply for waivers to begin in-person learning when their county is in the Purple Tier showing widespread coronavirus infections. The state has already issued some 1,700 waivers to elementary schools.
Before the latest surge, there were 21 counties that were offering hybrid or in-person classes, while 17 counties operated mostly online.
California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said that testing would be a major component to students and teachers returning to in-person schooling.
“There’s significant concern many of union have raised is need for robust testing,” said Thurmond. “Some districts will be better able to do that others will be challenged and will have to make decisions accordingly.”
At least one parent KPIX spoke with expressed concerns over the safety of the plan.
“We have to decide do we really want to send them, or hold back until there is more proof and testing of the vaccine,” said Fremont parent Vivya Koppolu.
Of the more than 10,000 public schools in California, some 1,700 have reopened for in-person learning.
More than 80% of schools in Marin County are open for at least some in-person learning.
The first school reopened in early September. Since then, the Marin County Department of Health says there have been six suspected cases of COVID transmitted at schools.
That’s one reason none of the reopened schools has had to shut down again.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed tweeted her praise and support for the new plan Wednesday afternoon, saying, “I appreciate Governor Gavin Newsom making this a priority.”
We have to get our students back in school, and we’ve shown we can do it safely with the right precautions and investments.
— London Breed (@LondonBreed) December 30, 2020
Separately, Newsom said the state’s phased vaccination plan includes teachers in the next phase which is expected to be finalized as soon as Wednesday.
“The 1B phase includes our teachers as a priority. And today, that drafting guidelines workgroup — I don’t want to preview where they will end up, but we anticipate that they will approve that plan,” said Newsom.
The plan to reopen schools comes even as the state’s most densely populated area continues to set new death and hospitalization records and will remain under strict stay-home orders for the foreseeable future as another hospital-filling coronavirus surge looms in mere weeks.
California’s top health official, Dr. Mark Ghaly, announced Tuesday an extension of the Dec. 6 lockdown restrictions for LA County and 22 others in Southern California and the agricultural San Joaquin Valley. The regions have about 60% of the state’s population of 40 million and also have seen COVID-19 surges since the Thanksgiving holiday that have left hospitals struggling to find beds for emergency room and intensive care unit patients.
Kenny Choi contributed to this story.
© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.