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California Offers $2 Billion Incentive In A Push For In-Person Learning

More California students may return to in-person learning after legislators promised $2 billion to public schools that return to campus before the end of the month.

Most of California's 6.1 million students and 319,000 teachers haven't set foot in a classroom since the pandemic shut down schools across the state last March. But Gov. Gavin Newsom worked with Senate and Assembly leaders to announce a $6.6 billion aid package Monday.

The majority of those funds come with no strings attached, but $2 billion is dedicated to personal protective equipment, ventilation upgrades and other safety measures required to support in-person instruction, a news release said. Public schools will be required to offer in-person learning to all kindergarten through second grade students, as well as high-needs students in all grades, by the end of the month. Those that don't meet that standard will lose 1% of eligible funds every day they are not in compliance. The other $4.6 billion will fund learning opportunities such as summer school, tutoring and mental health services to help close learning gaps.

California schools and businesses are currently subject to the state's color-coded tier system­­­­, from widespread infection purple down to, red, orange and yellow. Schools in the red tier or lower will have to offer in-person instruction to all elementary grade students and at least one middle or high school grade to avoid penalties. The guidelines aim to reopen schools as soon as possible to build "trust and confidence" in phased reopenings, the statement said.

Additionally, the budget package allocates 10% of vaccines, about 75,000 doseseach week, for education workers.

"Since the height of the winter surge, we have successfully shifted the conversation from whether to reopen schools to when," Newsom said. "Now, our collective charge is to build on that momentum and local leadership, and – just as critically – do whatever it takes to meet the mental health and academic needs of our students, including over the summer."

Getting students back into classrooms has been contentious for some time. One month ago, the city of San Francisco filed suit against its own school district in an effort to get kids back on campus. Since the pandemic began, teachers have often arguedthey don't feel safe returning to in-person instruction.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently published guidance on how schools should go about reopening campuses, starting with safe practices in the broader community. "Evidence suggests that many k-12 schools that have strictly implemented mitigation strategies have been able to safely open for in-person instruction and remain open," the CDC said.

Although teachers can and should receive a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible, children under 16 remain ineligible to do so. The CDC advised schools to continue mitigation efforts, which include mask mandates and social distancing "for the foreseeable future," whether teachers and staff have been vaccinated or not.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.