Photo credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times / Polaris

Jordan Ribon, 9, left, arrives at James H. Cox Elementary School in Fountain Valley with her father Tom Rincan and 4-year-old brother Dylan Rincan.

Photo credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times / Polaris

Jordan Ribon, 9, left, arrives at James H. Cox Elementary School in Fountain Valley with her father Tom Rincan and 4-year-old brother Dylan Rincan.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s Safe Schools For All plan, unveiled in the final days of 2020, has raised hopes that more schools may reopen for personal tuition this school year, at least for the youngest children in the state.

Newsom said the goal is “to help all communities be on track for safe personal education by spring 2021”.

However, the prospects for that seem daunting. What challenges do districts face when it comes to personal teaching? Here are the main ones:

Covid-19 spread across the state

Even those who argue most vigorously that return to school is a relatively low risk for children recognize that it should be done in the context of containing the spread of the virus in the wider community.

But the virus is rising in California and is reaching crisis levels in many parts of the states. In addition, several countries that have often been cited as role models for what California and the United States should do have closed their schools, particularly the United Kingdom. Germany has closed its schools for at least a month, at least until mid-January, as have other countries like the Netherlands and South Korea.

Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, much closer to home, has called for all schools in California’s largest county to stop offering face-to-face tuition or services for at least the next three weeks.

Detecting a new contagious virus strain is not helpful in the situation.

All of this is likely to result in more parents in addition to school staff being more concerned about going back to school in person. It also poses a conflicting messaging problem for the state and schools: families are supposed to stay home for whatever reason and not mingle with other families or households – and at the same time say that it is okay for them to return to school, to interact with children and adults from multiple households, indoors, for hours every day.

Logistics and testing costs for Covid-19

Newsom’s reopening plan is to test everyone in a school – both school staff and students – including those who are asymptomatic. They say they need to be tested every two weeks if the school is in a county in the purple area, with a daily infection rate of less than 14 positive cases per 100,000 residents. Those in counties with a daily average of more than 14 positive cases – currently all but two counties – would have to be tested every week.

School administrators worry about the logistics and costs of such a comprehensive testing program. According to Newsom, private insurance plans would cover the costs of the insured or MediCal. Fortunately, all but 3.6% of young people between the ages of 0 and 20 in California have some form of health insurance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

However, districts report that health plans refuse to pay for asymptomatic testing and that employees have to rely on testing sites in counties or states with long waiting times, making regular testing of staff difficult, if not impossible. Administrators fear that they will have to pay for the testing themselves, which would easily gobble up the per student funding they would receive from the state.

Additionally, the logistics of ensuring that all staff and students are tested regularly remains daunting. Newsom is expected to release more details about how the state will support testing programs soon, according to sources, but these are yet to be released.

Possible different effects on districts serving low-income students in areas with high infection rates

In a hugely critical letter to Newsom, superintendents of some of the state’s largest school districts (Los Angeles, San Diego, Long Beach, San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento) expressed concerns that infectious districts such as their predominantly low-income communities serve The Rates are generally higher than in wealthier communities and would not be eligible for funding under the Safe Schools For All plan. The plan calls for districts that have not yet opened for in-person tuition to have an average daily rate of fewer than 28 positive cases per 100,000 residents. “A funding model that only supports schools in communities less affected by the virus runs counter to California’s longstanding efforts to provide more support to students from low-income families,” the superintendents said. “If nothing changes, many students in needy communities are at risk of being left behind.”

Buy-in from teachers’ unions

Governor Newsom’s plan calls for school districts to receive support from teacher unions before they can reopen, which means reopening plans would have to be negotiated with teachers from district to district. However, the California Teachers Association questions a central element of Newsom’s plan, saying schools in countries that are still in the purple category should not be opened to face-to-face teaching. Given that all but two counties (Alps and Sierra) are currently in the purple zone, it will be difficult to come up with concrete plans to reopen schools without assurances that teachers will agree to attend. The seven superintendents are calling on Newsom to establish a unified standard for reopening face-to-face teaching and to force schools to reopen as soon as they meet that standard, regardless of opposition from unions or others.

Lack of replacement teachers and other staff

A big unknown for some districts is whether they have the staffing they need to provide in-person instruction – in addition to distance learning for children whose parents want to adhere to distance learning. More teachers are expected to get sick due to quarantine or confiscation after exposure or possible exposure to the virus. In some districts, higher risk teachers may choose to take vacation rather than the chance of being exposed in the classroom. As a rule, these vacancies could be filled by substitute teachers. The problem is that many districts struggled to find replacements before the pandemic. In fact, the number of replacement IDs issued in California has dropped dramatically. As reported by EdSource, there were 22,236 applicants for replacement badges over a six-month period in 2020. That was a decrease from 31,871 over the same period in 2019 and from 42,300 in 2018.

The problem is particularly acute in rural areas, where the shortage is most severe. The situation is so bad that Tim Taylor, General Manager of the Small School Districts’ Association, describes the shortage of replacements as a “code red problem” for rural schools.

Another challenge is that the implementation of health and safety practices may require additional non-teaching staff. For example, Scott Borba, superintendent of the Le Grand Union elementary school district in Merced County, says his district needs more supervisors to clean up school facilities.

Slow vaccination rate, school staff is not yet on the priority list

The availability of vaccines could make a huge difference in convincing school staff to return to school, as well as for parents who may not be willing to return their children to school for health reasons.

State officials say they hope to vaccinate 1 million people over 10 days in January. However, there are numerous unknowns that affect not just the pace of vaccinations, but who will receive them as well. It seems certain that teachers and other school employees will soon be placed on the priority list (phase 1B) to receive the vaccinations. It is unclear when this would happen, whether the state will prioritize which school workers and which schools or counties to vaccinate first, and whether this will happen quickly enough to open schools in the spring.

Uncertainties about state and federal funding to cover education and health costs

Right now it’s not entirely clear how much money districts can expect from the federal and state governments to get them through this school year – and whether the federal government will provide additional funding after Joe Biden takes office. The Georgia runoff results make it more likely that more funds will become available, but that won’t be known for weeks at best. EdSource has provided estimates of how much districts can expect from the federal government’s $ 900 billion bill, approved in September. However, these are only estimates. When it comes to government funding, the districts have a clearer idea of ​​where they stand after Governor Newsom announced his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year this week.

Find a way to provide in-person tuition for middle and high school students

Governor Newsom’s plan does not provide a way for middle and high school students to return to school. In fact, it is silent on the subject. With government regulations still in place, school communities would have limited ability to advance to the red, orange, or yellow grades of infection rates in their counties before middle or high school students could even be considered for in-person tuition . With the current emergency in the state, it is impossible to predict if this will happen in time to allow students and staff to return to school before May.

Overcoming divisions within school communities through personal teaching

The whole problem of schools reopening is emotional as different people have different levels of comfort and needs in terms of personal instruction. In some communities, some parents are passionate about getting children back to school as soon as possible, while other parents feel just the opposite. In many districts, teachers were particularly reluctant to return to their classrooms for health reasons, which often resulted in stressful negotiations. To make matters worse, school officials have little time to figure out how best to get students back to school this school year.

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