California · Education

Newsom announces $2bil in grants to unlock Calif. school doors

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday that state legislators have reached an agreement on a bill that would incentivize California school districts to reopen school for a subset of students. 

Once the bill is passed and signed by Newsom, school districts will be able to tap into $2 billion in grants if they reopen for in-person instruction before April 1.

The state will not mandate schools reopen, but the grants act serve as added encouragement to force districts to return students to campus. 

An additional $4.6 billion will be distributed to the school districts regardless of reopening status to help make up for learning loss, such as the possibility of extending the school year. 

The deal comes as COVID-19 case rates have plummeted across the state since a January peak. California is averaging 15.2 new coronavirus cases daily per 100,000 people as well as a 4.8 percent positivity rate. 

The number of hospitalizations throughout California sits at less than a quarter of the January peak. 

Newsom pointed to the COVID-19 metrics as a major factor behind the transition to reopen schools and, in turn, the economy. 

“You can’t reopen your economy unless you get your schools reopened for in-person instruction,” Newsom said. 

The requirements for school districts to receive funding from the $2 billion allocation depend on each county’s tier assignment in the state’s COVID-19 reopening blueprint.

School districts that are in counties in the purple (most restrictive) tier will have to reopen campus for grades TK-2.

School districts that reside in a red (second-most restrictive) tier county will be required to fully reopen their elementary schools as well as one grade each in middle and high schools. 

If districts are not abiding by the rules come April, the funds that they will be eligible to receive will decrease by 1 percent each day. 

“We’re not waiting to get out of this purple tier in order to get our kids safely back into in-person instruction, and that’s what’s so meaningful to me – that we’re not slowing down,” Newsom said. “We’re now accelerating the pace of reopening. But I’m very encouraged by the stabilization of the case rates, the positivity rate. 

“We do anticipate a majority of Californians in the next few weeks to be residing in counties that have moved out of the most restrictive purple tier.” 

What does this mean for Fresno Unified, the state’s fourth-largest school district? 

As of now – since Fresno County is in the purple tier – Fresno Unified will have to reopen schools for its youngest students this month if it wants to receive the grant money. 

That conflicts with the district’s current agreement with the teachers union – the Fresno Teachers Association – which is to have teachers return to campus once Fresno County enters the orange (third-most restrictive) tier. 

According to a report from GV Wire last week, Fresno Unified is negotiating with the union to have teachers return to in-person instruction earlier than the orange tier.

In return, the teachers would receive extra pay. 

Those negotiations now have to take into account the new funding source offered by the state for an expedited reopening. 

A Fresno Unified spokesperson told The Sun that the district is continuing its negotiations with the union and plans to publicly address later this week how the new bill will affect the reopening plans. 

With the new funding source providing its own twist to the situation, FUSD is also facing increased pressure from members of the Fresno City Council to reopen. 

Last Friday, Fresno City Council member Miguel Arias held a press conference at City Hall to spur the district and union to return to in-person instruction earlier than originally planned. 

“It is time for the district to respond to the please of parents and students and to offer realistic options for those students who have been neglected for more than a year,” Arias said. “In-person instruction directly from a teacher… is invaluable and essential to their learning.” 

Arias’ comments came on the heels of an axed attempt by fellow councilmember Garry Bredefeld to direct the city to take legal action against Fresno Unified and force a reopening. 

Bredefeld’s proposal was pulled from the City Council agenda on Feb. 18 by a 4-3 vote.

A week earlier, Bredefeld and Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson had a back-and-forth on Twitter when Bredefeld announced his desire for the city to sue the district. 

For his part, Bredefeld derided Newsom’s plan as little more than a publicity stunt.

“The ‘deal’ unveiled by Newsom today attempts to scam the public with
$6.6 billion of taxpayer money to open schools. But it only allows schools to open up through the second grade or elementary schools, depending on Newsom’s unscientific color-coded tier system,” Bredefeld said in a written statement.

“The ‘deal’ doesn’t immediately open schools for all children. It’s a fraud on the public to convince them that schools are opening when they aren’t.”

Daniel Gligich
Daniel Gligich is a reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun, focusing on Fresno State Athletics and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Email him at daniel.gligich@sjvsun.com.