Area districts study Newsom’s $2 billion incentive for reopening school campuses

Kindergartners walk past "welcome back" marquee at Top of the World elementary in October.
Kindergartners walk past “welcome back” marquee as elementary students return for in-person learning at Top of the World elementary in October.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Local school districts are evaluating new possibilities for state grants after news broke Monday that California officials would be giving $2 billion to reopen campuses for students in transitional kindergarten through second grade by April 1.

“We are very encouraged to see our legislative leaders and Gov. Newsom reach an agreement on reopening schools, for all those schools throughout the state that have yet to reopen,” said Ocean View School District Supt. Carol Hansen.

Hansen said the district is currently working with union officials on a plan to transition from the in-person hybrid schedule to have students in school five days a week.

“We are confident in the safety protocols we have in place and are pleased that educators now have access to vaccines,” said Hansen. “As we move forward with plans to bring more children back to school, we will most certainly pursue funding and grant opportunities available to us.”

In Orange County, the reopening of campuses has been staggered. The Newport-Mesa Unified School District reopened its elementary school campuses in September for a hybrid in-person program while the Laguna Beach Unified School District waited until October.

Some, such as the Ocean View School District, temporarily returned to distance learning in January as cases skyrocketed. Those schools reopened in February.

The proposed Assembly Bill 86 does not mandate that schools statewide reopen; instead it leaves that decision to the discretion to local officials. Parents will also still be allowed to keep their students in distance learning if that’s their preference.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said in an event held Monday in Elk Grove the grants would help to provide in-person instruction and could be used to provide more personal protective equipment or allow for greater spacing between students for safety. Newsom also encouraged lawmakers to set aside an additional $4.6 billion for students to receive help in the summer as the school year comes to an end.

The proposed bill will provide financial incentives to school districts that provide in-person instruction in counties where there are fewer than 25 new daily confirmed coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents. Orange County currently has an adjusted daily case rate of 7.6 cases for every 100,000 residents.

Those in the red tier, which would have case rates of about four to seven for every 100,000, would be required to extend classroom learning to all students in elementary schools and at least one grade of secondary school to access all available funds.

Officials in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District said they would also be looking into the details of the proposed incentives.

“We welcome financial opportunities that assist us in our efforts to continue to offer in-person learning,” said Annette Franco, a spokeswoman for the district, in an email.

As for the Huntington Beach City School District, Supt. Leisa Winston said that the district intends to apply for the grants and anticipates use of those resources to be directed to expanding in-person instruction beyond its current program.

In Laguna Beach, Assistant Supt. Michael Conlon said the information is too new to immediately determine his district’s next steps.

The Fountain Valley School District and Huntington Beach Union High School District did not respond to requests for comment.

Reopening schools in Orange County has not been without controversy between community members as some have pushed for reopening campuses while others have pushed back out of concern for safety.

Safety has also been a chief concern of some teachers, but Newsom said last month the state would be allocating 10% of weekly vaccine doses for those in childcare and K-12 educators. Orange County health officials confirmed Monday that vaccinations will be available to those individuals starting March 1 at the super point-of-dispensing sites operated by the county Department of Education.

The proposal is expected to receive passage in the state legislature Thursday.

“I look forward after that vote on Thursday to quickly signing this and moving forward to celebrating the reopening for in-person instruction of schools all up and down the state of California,” said Newsom on Monday.

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