Governor Gavin Newsom emphasized California’s “bottom line” is that “learning is non-negotiable” at a press conference on Friday afternoon, as the state rolls out guidelines for reopening schools this fall.
“Our students, our teachers and certainly our parents — we all prefer in-classroom instruction for all the obvious reasons: social and emotional foundations,” Newsom said. “But only if it can be done safely. As a parent, I believe that.”
Schools will be allowed to open physically in counties that have been off the COVID-19 monitoring list for at least 14 consecutive days. Otherwise, they will have to start distance learning. The COVID-19 monitoring list includes more than 30 California counties, including San Francisco and Alameda.
If schools do move back to in-person learning, third grade students and above will be required to wear a face mask, but students in second grade or lower will only be strongly encouraged to do so.
Staff will be regularly tested and required to remain six feet away from one another. Newsom emphasized that this effort will be aided by thousands of contact tracers in partnership with the University of San Francisco and UCLA. In-person learning will close in various degrees depending on outbreaks and with consultations from public health officers.
To meet learning loss, Newsom said that the state was pouring $5.3 billion in additional funding. He noted that there would be a special focus on equity, particularly when it comes to homeless students, students in foster care, ESL students, and students with learning disabilities and special needs.
San Francisco’s school board is currently supporting distance learning for the fall, in compliance with the city’s health orders. It would take at least eight weeks to phase in a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning, and — similar to state guidelines — it would require face masks, physical distancing, handwashing, symptoms screenings, and other measures intended to keep students and teachers safe. Distance learning presents its own set of challenges.
Last year, SF Weekly reported that one in eight San Francisco households don’t have an internet connection at home. However, statewide requirements include access to devices and connectivity for all kids. Newsom said that thousands of hotspots and Chromebooks have been donated across the state to close the digital divide, and that more work still needs to be done.
Reopening schools has been a contentious subject, as teachers and parents express concerns about the consequences of returning as well as not returning. According to a rolling survey obtained by the SF Examiner, 29 percent of teachers don’t feel ready to return to the classroom, 30 percent of teachers want to go back, and 40 percent are still unsure.
“We cannot deny the fact that we have hundreds of thousands of adults that are responsible to taking care of and educating these kids as well and their health has to be considered as well,” Newsom said, stating that he has reverence for teachers, principals, janitors and bus drivers, alike. “I am trusted to be accountable and responsible to their health as well, as the health of my children, and your children and our children — our future.”
SFUSD board members will not vote on distance or in-person learning until July 28. School is scheduled to start on Aug. 17. Los Angeles and San Diego’s schools districts — the largest in the state — will not be opening for in-person learning this fall.
For those invested in getting children back into classrooms, Newsom encourages individual acts like wearing masks, physically distancing and washing hands.
“If every American wore a mask, in just a number of weeks, every American will have dramatically bent the curve,” Newsom said. “I don’t know if that’s too much to ask.”
Grace Z. Li covers arts, culture and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.