State deal encourages reopening schools by April if districts meet metrics

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SAN DIEGO (CNS) – Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders announced a multibillion-dollar deal Monday aimed at enticing schools to resume in-person instruction for young students by April 1, but previously existing San Diego Unified plans for COVID vaccinations of teachers and reduced transmission rates make it unlikely the district will meet that date.

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 pre-kindergarten through second grade, as well as high-need students of all ages. The money will go toward safety improvements, such as ventilation systems and protective equipment.

The proposal does not order schools to reopen, but schools that fail to do so by April 1 will lose a percentage of their funds for every day they miss the deadline.

San Diego Unified School District leaders announced last week they set a targeted date of April 12 to allow students of all grade levels to return to the classroom — provided the county drops into the red tier of the state’s COVID-19 monitoring system — nearly a year after the district closed its schools due to the pandemic.

Under the plan, teachers, who will have the choice to be vaccinated, will return to classrooms April 5. The plan calls for a hybrid model, and students will have the option to continue learning from home. COVID-19 safety protocols will continue to be observed on campuses indefinitely, officials said.

Board of Education President Richard Barrera said last week the plan is to bring all grade levels back after spring break, provided the vaccination schedule holds up and case rates continue to decrease. As of Tuesday, San Diego County had an adjusted new case rate of 15 per 100,000 people — in the state’s purple tier of its four-tiered reopening plan. Moving to the state’s less- restrictive red tier will require a rate of 7 per 100,000 residents.

“Our plan to reopen classrooms in April is the result of groundbreaking collaboration between our city, our county and our professional educators,” Barrera said. “From the start of this crisis, we have remained committed to reopening when it was safe and responsible to do so. Full vaccinations for educators are part of that safety plan, and we are very grateful for our regional partners helping us to achieve this goal.”

The money in Newsom’s proposal would be available to schools in counties with an average daily new COVID case rate of fewer than 25 per 100,000 residents, which covers the vast majority of the state. San Diego 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.

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 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 be 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 districts make up for learning time lost during the pandemic, possibly by extending the school year into the summer.

San Diego County’s COVID case rates have been dropping dramatically following a winter surge, but it was unclear when it might be able to advance to the “red” tier.

Case rates are updated weekly, with the next update scheduled for Tuesday. Newsom said Tuesday’s update will likely move seven counties across the state from the “purple” tier to the “red” tier, but he did not specify which counties would be advancing.

Newsom reiterated Monday that vaccinations should not be considered a pre-requisite for schools to reopen. But he has ordered that a minimum of 10% of all vaccinations received by the state, a minimum of 75,000 doses per week, be set aside for teachers and school staff.

Copyright 2021 City News Service, Inc.

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