Sacramento Scene: March 2021

By: Matt Patton, CATA Executive Director

Mounting pressure to reopen schools is echoing throughout the halls of the California Capitol. Lawmakers and the Governor have been negotiating for over a week about the details in Prop 98 Budget Funding, Senate and Assembly Bill 86 concerning COVID-19 expenditures and guidelines for reopening schools. Last Thursday, an agreement was struck, ironing out those details.

Late last week, both the Senate and the Assembly passed a bill that will make $2 billion in incentives available for schools to offer in-person instruction by April 1, starting with elementary grades. This bill applies to schools that have not already made in-person instruction available for students (Jones & Freedberg, 2021). The legislation also includes $4.6 billion for all school districts regardless of whether they meet Governor Newsom’s “Safe Schools for All” timeline. The legislation prioritizes “prioritized groups” (i.e. students who are homeless, foster care youth, and English language learners). The $4.6 billion is intended to help schools open and address learning loss experienced during distance learning. Districts in the red tier (less than 25 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people) are expected to return at some level by April 1. Funding will dissipate 1% a day until May 15 (Jones & Freedberg, 2021). 

The bill was the catalyst for heated debate on both the floor of the Senate and the Assembly. Perspectives on the issue fluctuated between the legislation not addressing appropriate safety levels, to the narrative that more students should be brought back on a more aggressive timeline. The bill passed the Assembly and the Senate by a combined 71-4. The four that voted no did so because they wanted a more aggressive timeline to get all students back into the classroom.  

Questions and Answers About Opening Schools after the passage of Senate and Assembly Bill 86 (Edsource Staff, 2021)

How many students are virtually learning in California? 

79% of students in California are enrolled in a school that is only offering virtual learning. 

When can California schools reopen? 

Grades 7-12 the county must be in the red tier (less than seven COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people) or lower to re-open. Elementary schools can open in purple tier (less than 25 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people).

Do students have to attend in-person instruction?

No. Schools are required to offer distance learning for those that request it. 

What does Assembly and Senate Bill 86 do?

The bill incentives up to $2 billion for schools to offer in-person instruction for primary grades and “prioritized groups” by April 1. 

 Is it mandatory that students and staff be COVID tested before reopening schools? 

No, as long as they have posted a COVID-19 safety plan by March 31. Any student or staff exhibiting COVID symptoms will be sent home and be encouraged to get tested. 

Are districts required to come to an agreement with teachers’ unions before returning to school?

The short answer is no, but Senate and Assembly Bill 86 does not override the bargaining rights of employee unions. Those unions could demand safety and health protections above and beyond what the state requires.

Are teachers required to be vaccinated before schools re-open?

The new law does not require teachers to be vaccinated, but the state has included them in Phase 1b of the vaccination rollout. 

What can districts spend Senate and Assembly Bill 86 money on? 

Districts will have a lot of flexibility in how the money is spent, but 85% must be spent on services related to providing in-person services, including initiatives like summer school, extended learning, tutoring and staff training through 2022. 

How will the money be allocated? 

The money will be distributed in accordance with the Local Control Funding Formula. 

Legislative Actions of Interest

AB 839 (O’Donnell) – Passage of this bill would augment the Career Technical Education Incentive Grant by an additional $150 million for CTEIG. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond signed on as a sponsor of the bill.

K-12 Strong Work Force Grant Audit – Assembly Education Chair O’Donnell submitted a formal audit request to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee regarding the K-12 SWF Grant. If taken up, this audit would require an in-depth audit of the expenditures of the grant.

SB 309 (Leyva) – This bill would change the existing Education Code to be more specific about offering high school classes that meet college entrance requirements. The bill inserts the need to provide access to A-G subject matter requirements to high school students. The Education Code already requires schools to offer an opportunity to pupils to meet post-secondary admission requirements. This bill would specify A-G classes.

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