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California Lawmakers Approve School Reopening Deal, But Will It Lead To Reopened Campuses?

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An example of what an L.A. Unified School District classroom could look like if campuses reopen. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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California lawmakers this morning easily approved a $6.6 billion package aimed at coaxing reluctant public schools to resume on-campus classes for the youngest and most at-risk students by April 1.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has promised a speedy final signature on Assembly Bill 86, which both State Senate and Assembly lawmakers approved by wide margins this morning.

“The goal of (AB 86) is to spur districts on the sidelines to act,” said Asm. Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, “and also help those that are already acting.”

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The legislation includes $2 billion in incentives which public schools can only claim if they promise to bring all students in kindergarten through second grade back to campuses by April 1. In order to claim the incentive funds, districts must also agree to take steps to partially reopen middle- and high schools as soon as their county exits the “purple tier,” the highest and most restrictive tier on California’s COVID-19 monitoring system.

Districts could use the incentive money to pay for physical safety measures. The bill also includes $4.6 billion in aid schools can use to combat learning loss through tutoring programs, a longer school year and direct support for students at risk of missing graduation.

‘WITH OR WITHOUT THIS BILL…’

But in school districts like Los Angeles Unified, it’s not clear the bill’s passage will spur change.

LAUSD’s teachers' union has said it wants all staff members vaccinated before campuses reopen. They’re still negotiating with the district on a series of on-campus safety protocols. United Teachers Los Angeles leaders have panned AB 86 as, effectively, a subsidy to rich communities where schools are already prepared to open.

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Other critics, like Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, voted for the bill, but said it represented a punt from Gov. Gavin Newsom; Wilk felt the governor could have done more to compel reluctant districts to reopen.

“I believe with or without this bill, school districts that want to reopen will, and school districts that don’t want to reopen, won’t,” Wilk said on the floor of the state Senate. “So if this is not a school reopening bill, what is it? I believe it’s a CYA maneuver by Gov. Newsom to get parents to believe he’s doing everything he can for them.”

Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, also said she was voting to support the bill despite concerns about its flaws. She also urged lawmakers to pass follow-up legislation to address the needs of students who were completely checked out during the last year.

“I know people are really anxious to get their kids back to school in every community,” Gonzalez said, “but there’s justifiable fear” of the virus, she added, especially in low-income communities.

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