Gavin Newsom briefs the press on his plan for reopening schools. Image from livestream

Insisting that safety is “non-negotiable,” Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a $2 billion plan Wednesday to get young California students back to in-person learning as early as the spring.

However, it was unclear how quickly such a move could occur in Southern California, which is being particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proposal calls for a phased approach focusing on the youngest students and those who are most in need and is based on what Newsom called “growing evidence of the decreased risks and increased benefits of in-person instruction.”

“By focusing on a phased approach with virus mitigation and prevention at the center, we can begin to return our kids to school to support learning needs and restore the benefits of in-person instruction,” he said. “It’s especially important for our youngest kids, those with disabilities, those with limited access to technology at home and those who have struggled more than most with distance learning.”

The plan would include safety measures at schools that return to in-person instruction, including COVID-19 testing and protective equipment. It calls for frequent testing of students and staff, masks for everyone on campus and prioritizing school staff for vaccinations.

Newsom’s proposal would begin with students in pre-kindergarten through second grade. And while the push is to resume in-person learning as much as possible, distance learning will still be available.

“Distance learning will still remain an option for parents and students,” he said. “There’s a lot of trepidation, we recognize that, a lot of anxiety, about going back into the classroom, which one has to clearly acknowledge. Not just for our teachers but also for our parents, particularly with kids who may have unique conditions.”

The plan met with immediate support from many educators and education advocates.

“A safe return of kids to the classroom is on the wish list of countless California families, and Governor Newsom’s Safe Schools for All Plan paves the way. The plan is rooted in science, health and safety — all key tenets to any conversation about returning to in-person instruction,” said California State PTA President Celia Jaffe.

“I am in full support of Gov. Newsom’s plan to reopen schools in California. We now have evidence from other countries and states that if we take the proper precautions we can open schools safely in several communities. The plan he has developed is sound and based on the best research available for keeping children and adults safe,” said Pedro Noguera, Dean of the USC Rossier School of Education.

The superintendents of seven of the state’s largest school districts, including San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco, offered a joint statement thanking the governor.

“On behalf of the more than 1 million students we serve, we welcome the efforts by the Newsom administration to make the reopening of public school classrooms a priority,” the superintendents said, adding that “it will take a coordinated effort at the state and local levels to reopen classrooms as soon as possible while protecting the health and safety of all in the school community.”

Despite the governor’s aggressive timeline, it was unclear how quickly students in Southern California might be in a position to return to classes on a widespread basis. Earlier this month, the San Diego Unified School District scrapped plans to return to in-person instruction in January amid a surge in the pandemic.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.