Quick Guide: California’s plan for getting more kids back to school

Alta Vista Elementary School Principal Karin Sato opens the door for first grade students Knoah Aracena, left and twin brother Kane Aracena after they are screened for the second day of classes as Redondo Beach Unified School district has welcomed back some of its K-2 students on Feb. 2, 2021.

On Dec. 30, 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a $2 billion “Safe Schools for All” plan to encourage more schools to reopen for in-person instruction beginning on February 15.  

Some parts of the plan went into effect right away. At the same time lawmakers in Sacramento introduced legislation (Senate and Assembly Bill 86) which took a different approach. After weeks of negotiations, Newsom and the Legislature reached agreement on a school reopening plan, enacted in Senate and Assembly Bill 86, with a target date of April 1 for those schools not yet offering in-person instruction. After passionate, and at times critical, remarks from Democrats and Republicans, both chambers approved the bill Thursday morning, without a single dissenting vote. This Quick Guide answers some key questions on how the plan is intended to operate.

What is the rationale for the plan?

The new law does not mandate reopening schools, but states that “it is the intent of the Legislature that local educational agencies offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible during the 2020–21 school year.”

The Newsom administration believes that “in-person is the best setting to meet not only the core learning needs of students, but also their mental health and social-emotional needs.”

At the same time, his administration contends that safety is “foundational,” and that “the right precautions can effectively stop the spread of Covid 19 in schools — especially in elementary schools.”

Is it safe to bring students back?


Federal and state health officials believe it is relatively safe to bring students back to school, starting with the earliest grades, if health and safety practices are implemented and followed.

In a statement accompanying the Safe Schools for all Plan, the California Department of Public Health asserted the following:

  • Research across the globe shows that children get Covid-19 less often than adults, and when they do get sick, they get less sick than adults.
  • In studies of open schools in America and around the world, children do not seem to be major sources of transmission — either to each other or to adults.
  • The growing body of evidence is particularly strong regarding lower risks in elementary schools.
  • Even in communities with many Covid-19 cases, we do not see many outbreaks in schools. That’s because the right precautions can stop outbreaks before they start. See this report, for example.

How many students are attending in-person classes in California?

There are no accurate figures, but as of February 2021, the vast majority of California students are receiving instruction via distance learning. According to an EdSource analysis, in mid-February, 79% of students in California were enrolled in districts only offering instruction via distance learning.

However, in many counties, especially rural ones, in-person instruction is the main form of instruction, at least for a part of the school day or week.

Since January 2021, the pace of in-person instruction is accelerating as the rate of new daily cases has declined across the state.

Under what conditions can schools reopen in California?

Elementary school grades can open if their counties are in the purple tier, as long as the average daily rate of new Covid-19 cases is less than 25 per 100,000 residents.

For grades 7-12, counties must be in the red, orange or yellow tiers, with a new daily case rate of 7 or less.  

In the coming weeks, the definition of the red tier will be changed to a new case rate of 10 or fewer infections, once there is a significant rise in vaccinations in zip codes with high levels of infection.

Do children have to attend schools that reopen?

No. Schools still have to offer distance learning for parents who don’t want their children to receive in-person instruction. Surveys show that in many districts, large numbers of parents prefer their children continue to receive instruction remotely.

What does the legislation approved by the Legislature (SB 86) essentially say?

The plan provides schools with financial incentives totaling $2 billion to offer in-person instruction beginning on April 1 to students with extra needs or requiring special attention, and for students in some grades, depending on what tier their counties are in on the state’s color coded system ranking the level of Covid-19 infection in local areas.


What do school districts have to do to qualify for the funds?

To get their full share of the $2 billion in incentive funding, school districts have to offer in-person instruction for students in transitional kindergarten, kindergarten, and 1st and 2d grades beginning April 1, even if their counties are in the purple tier. Their daily case rate would need to be less than 25 per 100,000 residents.

They must also offer in-person instruction for “individuals with exceptional needs” and “to all prioritized pupil groups” by April 1.

If they are in the red, orange, or yellow tiers, they must offer in-person instruction to all elementary students, as well as any one middle or high school grade.

How much will each district receive?

Amounts will vary considerably. Funds would be allocated based on what a district is entitled to receive under the Local Control Funding Formula — a base grant, and additionally supplemental and concentration grants determined by the proportions of low-income, foster and homeless students and English learners in a district.

What students are in a “prioritized student group”? 

As outlined in the new legislation, to receive the incentive funds, districts are also required to offer in-person instruction “to all pupils who are individuals with exceptional needs, if consistent with each pupil’s individualized education program, and to all prioritized pupil groups.”

The definition of which students would be in “a prioritized group” is very broad. In addition to special education students, these are students “at risk for abuse, neglect, or exploitation, homeless and foster youth, English learners, students without access to a computing device, software, and high-speed internet necessary to participate in online instruction, and disengaged pupils.”

What if a district isn’t able to serve all these “prioritized” students?

If the number of students seeking in-person instruction in this category exceeds the capacity of districts to maintain health and safety standards, districts are only required to serve students to their “maximum practical capacity”

Does this law apply to charter schools?

Yes. In most cases, when this guide refers to districts, the same provisions apply to charter schools.

What if districts don’t offer in-person instruction by April 1?

The funds they would have received on April 1 will decrease by 1% for each day the schools are not open through May 15.  After May 15, school districts would not get any additional funds.

What qualifies as in-person instruction?

The new legislation has a very broad definition of in-person instruction. It does not specify how many hours or days a student should have access to it. It says school districts must only offer in-person instruction “to the greatest extent possible” and if that is not possible, to offer a hybrid form of instruction, with some part of the day or week in a distance learning mode, and the rest in an in-person mode.

What if more students want in-person instruction than a district is able to handle?

According to the SB 86, if the number of “prioritized pupils” exceeds a district’s “practical capacity” to maintain health and safety, they d0 not have to serve those students.

Do staff and students have to be tested for the virus?

If a staff person or student shows symptoms associated with Covid-19, they should be sent home, and be encouraged to get tested, according to state guidance issued in January 2021 (see page 33 of the guidance). Those who have had close contact with that person should also be sent home, and recommended that they get tested within 5 to 7 days.

Districts are not required to test students and staff without symptoms, known as asymptomatic testing, as long as they have posted their Covid-19 safety plan by March 31.

If they have not posted their safety plan by that date, schools will have to test all staff and students as long as their county is in the purple tier, the level with the highest infection rates. The new law does not specify how often they would need to be tested.

Where do the $2 billion in incentive funds come from?

They will come out of one-time state funding allocated for K-12 schools through the Proposition 98 formula that will be available as a result of an unexpected budget surplus this year.  

What must districts spend the incentive funds on? 

Funds must be spent “for any purpose consistent with providing in-person instruction, including Covid-19 testing, cleaning, personal protective equipment, facility needs, staffing costs, and social and mental health supports provided in conjunction with in-person instruction.”

Do school districts need to get approval from the state before opening?

Yes, but only in districts in counties in the purple tier. School districts in the purple tier must submit their Covid-19 safety plan to their local public health department and the California Department of Public Health. If either department identifies “a deficiency” in terms of health and safety guidelines and regulations, the district will be notified and given an opportunity “to resolve the deficiency” before being allowed to open.

If districts are in the red tier, they just need to post a safety plan on their website at least five days before reopening, 

Are districts required to negotiate or come to an agreement with their teachers’ unions before opening?

No. But the legislation does not override the bargaining rights of employee unions, which can demand safety and health protections that the state does not require for reopening.

Does the new law require teachers to be vaccinated before reopening schools?

No. However, the state has included teachers in Phase 1b of the vaccine rollout and, beginning March 1,  Gov. Newsom set aside 10% of all vaccines available statewide each week for school employees, including teachers, until vaccinations have been offered to all who want them.

What is the CTA’s response to SB 86? 

In general, the California Teachers Association expressed support for the legislation. The agreement “includes the multi-tiered safety measures educators have been calling for.” said E. Toby Boyd. “It recognizes community transmission rates and the importance of prioritizing educators for the Covid-19 vaccine before reopening for in-person instruction. We commend the governor and the Legislature for recognizing those concerns.”

But Boyd also expressed some caution, saying “we are reviewing the proposal’s details more closely, and we look forward to working with educators as they negotiate with districts to safely reopen for in-person teaching and learning beginning in one month.”

What has the overall response been to the legislation?

The response has been mixed. Open Schools California, a statewide parent group, rejected the plan as a “failure.” It complained that under the plan, only TK-2 classes would open in many counties beginning on April 1, and that’s assuming health conditions allow them to do so. Most middle and high school students would be “be effectively shut out completely.”

Superintendents in some districts worried about whether they would be able to get agreement from teachers’ unions in time, along with being able to implement the many health and safety practices required by state and local health departments.

What else is in the legislation?

The legislation also sets aside $4.6 billion proposed by Gov. Newsom in his January budget for districts to implement programs that address the harm caused by Covid-19 to students academic progress and their emotional and mental health.

School districts must adopt a plan by June 1 on how they plan to use their funds.  

Before adopting the plan, they must consult with parents and members of the public.

What can districts spend that money on?

Districts will have flexibility to determine how to spend the money, although 85% must be spent on “expenditures related to providing in-person services.” Options include summer school, an extended school year or school day, tutoring, counseling, and staff training, through the 2021-22 school year.

Fifteen percent of the funds can be spent on increasing or improving services for students in distance learning.

Ten percent of the funding must be spent on rehiring or expanding the number of paraprofessionals, with priority for aides for students with disabilities and other special education students.

How will funding levels be determined?

As with the $2 billion return-to-school incentive grants, the Local Control Funding Formula will determine how the $4.6 billion will be distributed to districts.

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