Gov. Newsom signs return-to-school incentive legislation in California

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation on Friday to incentivize the return to in-person instruction before the end of this school year.

In a virtual news conference on Zoom, the governor signed the  $6.6 billion plan at 9:30 a.m. alongside Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, other legislative leaders and state education officials.

Newsom said he is optimistic "this bill is going to really accelerate openings across the state."

Parents and students desperately waiting for their schools to reopen, aren't so sure.

"Education is essential. Children being in school is essential. It's as essential as any business," said Allison Stockman, an Oakland Unified School District parent of three children. "I'm going to keep protesting and fighting. My kids can't sacrifice another year."

Some parents and students gathered at Oakland Tech High school Friday morning for another "Zoom-In" protest, holding signs that read, "Please let us go to school."

With frustrations mounting, some people at the protest circulated and signed the recall petition for the governor, noting that while many public school students have been limited to online-only school, Newsom's four children have attended in-person classes at their private school since last fall.

"That seems extremely embarrassing," said Stockman. "Everyone needs to go back to school, not just his kids."

The law does not order school districts to resume in-person instruction and it does not say parents must send their kids back to the classroom if they don’t want to. It also doesn't require minimum hours of in-person instruction in order to receive the money.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) and other lawmakers acknowledged the deal's shortcomings.

"This is not a panacea. In our district, if this happens, we've penciled out that they will maybe go back twelve days, between now and June, of school," he said. 

The state will dangle $2 billion before cash-strapped school boards, offering them a share of that money only if they offer in-person instruction by the end of the month.

And some districts - like San Francisco Unified - have already said the money won't speed up their timeline.

School districts have until May 15 to decide. Districts that resume in-person learning after that date won’t get any of the incentive money, but will still receive some of the 4.6 billion in state funds to pay for tutoring, summer school and educational learning loss of students.

Most of California’s 6.1 million students throughout 1,037 public school districts have been learning from home since last March because of the pandemic. Frustrated parents and politicians have been clamoring for schools to return students to the classroom for months.

But many school boards have been reluctant, facing opposition from teachers unions worried about coronavirus safety protocols and citing surveys from parents saying they are not comfortable sending their kids back to class in-person.

The California Teachers Union has also said they're concerned that the incentive plan puts schools in communities with higher COVID rates at a disadvantage because they can't open immediately.

Nearly every lawmaker voted for the bill on Thursday, but many did so reluctantly, arguing it’s too weak.

The bill does not say how much time students should spend in the classroom, prompting fears some districts might have students return for just one day a week and still be eligible to get the money. And while the bill requires most elementary school grades to return to the classroom to get the money, it does not require all middle and high school grades to return this year.

Republicans in the state Senate tried to amend the bill to say schools must offer at least three days per week of in-person learning, but Democrats in the majority rejected it.

Newsom faces a potential recall election later this year, fueled by anger over his handling of the fallout from the pandemic. He has traveled the state in recent weeks touting his efforts at reopening the economy, including a visit to an elementary school where he read to students as they sat behind plexiglass barriers on their desks.

Scott Wilk, the Republican leader in the state Senate, said the bill was simply an effort by Democrats to give Newsom political cover so he can "get parents to believe he’s doing everything he possibly can for them."

"The truth is (this bill) doesn’t do anything to reopen our schools. ," said Wilk, who voted for the bill along with most other Republicans.

The new law has two sets of rules districts must follow to get the money. The first set applies to school districts in counties where the coronavirus is widespread. The second set of rules applies to districts in counties where the virus is not as widespread.

To get the money, districts governed by the first set of rules must offer in-person learning through at least second grade by the end of March. Districts governed by the second set of rules must offer in-person learning to all elementary grades, plus at least one grade in middle and high school.

However, the Newsom administration late Wednesday changed the standards that dictate which counties must follow which rules. The new standards mean most counties will have to follow the second set of rules requiring districts to offer in-person instruction for more grades.

Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez criticized that decision as "a little dishonest."

Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, went further, saying he was "deeply concerned to see the goalposts already moving on this reopening plan just days after its unveiling."

"This change risks the unintended consequences of delaying return to classrooms and further eroding Californians’ trust," he said.

The bill also includes $4.6 billion aimed at helping students catch up after a year of learning from home. Districts could use the money to extend the school year into the summer or they could spend it on counseling and tutoring.

All districts would get this money, regardless of whether they offer in-person instruction. But the bill stated that districts must use at least 85% of that money for expenses related to in-person instruction.

Adam Beam from the Associated Press contributed to this report.