Deal reached to get California children back in classrooms

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FILE - In this Feb. 25, 2021, file photo, Assistant Principal Janette Van Gelderen, left, welcomes students at Newhall Elementary in Santa Clarita, Calif. California's public schools could get $6.6 billion from the state Legislature if they return to in-person instruction by the end of March, according to a new agreement announced Monday, March 1, 2021, between Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state's legislative leaders. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The majority of California's 6.1 million public school students could be back in the classroom by April under new legislation announced Monday by Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders. Critics panned the plan as inadequate.

Most students in the nation's most populous state have been learning from home for the past year during the pandemic. But with new coronavirus cases falling rapidly throughout the state, Newsom and lawmakers have been under increasing pressure to come up with a statewide plan aimed at returning students to schools in-person.

If approved by the Legislature, the plan announced Monday would not order districts to return students to the classroom and no parents would be compelled to send their kids back to school in-person. Instead, the state would set aside $2 billion to pay districts that get select groups of students into classrooms by the end of the month.

Crucially, the legislation does not require districts to have an agreement with teachers' unions on a plan for in-person instruction. That's a barrier that many districts, including the nation's second-largest district in Los Angeles, have not been able to overcome.

It also does not require all teachers be vaccinated, as teacher unions had urged and that could take months given the nation's limited supply of vaccine. The legislation would make it state law that 10% of the state's vaccine supply be set aside specifically for teachers and school staff.

"You can’t reopen your economy unless you get your schools reopened for in-person instruction,” said Newsom, who announced the deal with state Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon at an elementary school in the Elk Grove Unified School District just south of Sacramento. The district, one of the first in the country to halt in-person learning last year because of the coronavirus, plans to return to in-person instruction later this month.

The state's two largest teachers unions mostly praised the agreement, with California Federation of Teachers President Jeff Freitas calling the prioritization of vaccines for teachers “a huge victory.” Kevin Gordon, a lobbyist representing many of the state's school districts, called the plan “a grand slam home run," saying it “dismantled every impediment to reopening that we've had so far.”

The announcement comes at a critical time for Newsom, who could face a recall election later this year fueled by anger over his response to the pandemic. Kevin Faulconer, the former Republican mayor of San Diego who already has announced his candidacy, said the plan Newsom announced “isn’t even close to good enough for our kids and teachers.”