'We must prepare now for in-person learning' next school year: Gov. Gavin Newsom

Without mandating anything, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said that he wants schools to open next year. 

"This is a challenging transition," he said Wednesday in front of Sheppard Elementary School in Santa Rosa. "But we're ready now. We can do this. We must do it. We must prepare now for in-person learning come this next school year."

This week, Newsom said there were roughly 9,000 of 11,000 public schools that "either firmly reopened or announced a date for in-person instruction.

But Newsom stopped short of saying what would happen if schools don't listen to his urging.

Rather, he emphasized that he didn't want to have a "closed fist" on his approach to reopening, and he again offered millions of dollars of taxpayer money to schools so that they could safely reopen."

He said that he was mindful that it's challenging and traumatic for teachers and districts that don't feel ready to open. But he then repeated more simply: "I want schools to reopen." 

California ranks last in the country in the amount of in-person learning time offered to students, according to Burbio. The company has been monitoring the reopening of some 1,200 school districts, including the largest 200 in the country, since last August.

President of Burbio Dennis Roche said in many part of the county a hybrid model is defined as two to three days a week of in-person learning for six hours per day, but in California some districts are offering only one day a week of in-person learning.

"It’s the best the districts can do and we’re not suggesting that they should be doing something different, but it’s on the light side of in-person learning" Roche said. "California fell behind in the fall and even though they are starting to catch up they are catching up at a much slower pace."

Other states like Florida, Iowa, New Mexico, and New Hampshire have mandated schools to open. Jonathan Zacherson with the group Reopen California Schools wants Newsom to do the same.

"He absolutely can mandate if he wants to, he's just choosing not to," Zacherson said. "He's asked nicely enough times. he's offered enough bribes. Some districts have taken it, but by and large they have not."

Reopening schools varies city to city because of California’s decentralized education system, where 1,200 school districts must negotiate new contracts with workers. While educators were among the first groups eligible for vaccines, some districts have let them keep working from home if they or someone they live with is at increased risk from COVID-19.

That has occurred in San Francisco, where the Associated Press interviewed Kira Gaber.

She said she’s been told to send her kindergartner back to his San Francisco classroom with a laptop and headphones — aka Zoom in a Room. His teacher will be working online from home, while an adult monitor watches the kids in class.

"How is this OK? This is completely not in-person learning," said Gaber, who doesn’t plan to send her son to class with a computer. "I’m going to send him with worksheets and a coloring book."

Across the U.S., what it means to be back in school looks very different from one state to the next.

New York City, the nation’s largest school district, allowed students to return last fall, but the Department of Education expects just one-third of its 960,000 K-12 students in classrooms by month’s end.

As of March 29, more than 40% of districts nationwide had offered all students the option to return to full-time in-person instruction, according to the Return to Learn Tracker, developed in part by the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.