Newsom strikes school reopening deal with California lawmakers

Under the plan, once counties move into the red tier — with daily case rates below 7 per 100,000 residents — schools eligible for the grant funding must open to all elementary grades, plus at least one grade in middle and high school.

The deal speeds up the clock and more strictly ties the grants to in-person instruction than what the Legislature proposed. If schools do not open by the end of March, they will start to lose a percentage of money for each day they remain closed starting April 1.

Most of California’s 6 million public schoolchildren have been out of classrooms for almost a year. The state’s deference to local school decision-making, along with union resistance and high winter case rates, have made it difficult for California to bring students back. While a Capitol deal may propel districts toward reopening, local school boards and their labor unions still have final say — and many want safety assurances that include vaccines and ventilation improvements.

The deal could lead to California reopening most schools by President Joe Biden’s 100-day deadline at the end of April, but not necessarily for five days per week. The bill would allow hybrid schooling to qualify for in-person instruction grants, and some large districts are considering plans to bring back elementary school students for two days a week or less.

The initial legislative proposal would have offered the funding to K-6 schools that opened by April 15 in the less restrictive red tier. Newsom’s plan had proposed schools open Feb. 15 and allowed schools to reopen to K-6 grades in the purple tier as long as they were in a county with an average daily rate of infections under 25 positive cases per 100,000 residents.

The Governor had publicly criticized the legislative bill, saying it was stricter than what the Biden administration recommends for schools and would make California “an extreme outlier.”

A December bill proposed by Assembly Democrats would have forced all schools except those in the purple tier to reopen by March, but teachers unions quickly mobilized against it.

While both Newsom’s plan and the Legislature’s plan made union signoff a requirement in order for schools to be eligible for grant funding, the new proposal avoids any mention of collective bargaining after superintendents said that language could upend existing agreements or create more hurdles than solutions.

That doesn’t mean that unions can’t or won’t push to negotiate reopening requirements with their districts. The California Teachers Association did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday.