PALO ALTO (KPIX/CBS SF/BCN) — While on a campaign to push more school reopenings across the state, Gov. Gavin Newsom and a group of local leaders visited an opened Palo Alto elementary school on Tuesday to encourage campuses to resume in-class instruction as quickly as possible.
The governor pointed to Barron Park Elementary School, where he spoke, as an example for resuming in-class instruction.
Its campus was one of the first schools in the Bay Area to reopen in October using a hybrid model of in-person and online instruction. The Palo Alto Unified School District that Barron Park is a part of intends to reopen for grades 7-12 by next week.
"[Classrooms have] plexiglass, appropriately distanced, ventilation, doors open, windows open," Newsom said. "Proving that we can get our kids back in school not just here, but all across the state of California."
But he noted that not all schools have the resources to support reopening, which is why he announced a $6.6 billion legislative package that would financially support grades K-6 to open by the end of the month and grades 7-12 by early April.
The package allocates $2 billion in grants to fund safety measures for resuming in-person instruction, including personal protective equipment, regular COVID-19 testing and improvements for classroom ventilation.
The remaining $4.6 billion would support voluntary learning expansions like extending the school year into the summer, additional tutoring and mental health services for students.
Newsom said now is the best time to reopen as additional vaccines are en route to California and state COVID-19 metrics are down.
As of Tuesday, California's COVID-19 positivity rate is 2.3 percent, hospitalizations are down 41 percent in the last week and intensive care unit stays declined 43 percent in the last two weeks, Newsom said.
In addition, 18 counties, including Santa Clara County, are in less restrictive tiers as of Tuesday, allowing many sectors like gyms, indoor religious services and indoor dining to reopen with some restrictions.
And with new federal approval for the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the state is expecting significant increases in vaccine allocations. Newsom also said the federal government could be using vaccines like the United Kingdom's AstraZeneca vaccine in the future.
"More than a dozen other vaccines are in trials around the rest of the globe," Newsom said. "The three that are top of mind (Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson) and not the only ones in advanced trials."
This week the state will receive 1.58 million doses and next week that number will jump to 1.64 million, the governor noted.
Of those vaccines, Newsom said 10 percent will be dedicated to vaccinating teachers.
Santa Clara County also opened a new site at the county fairgrounds on Monday dedicated for educators, with the capacity to inoculate 500 teachers and staff a day.
So far, several school districts located in more affluent parts of Santa Clara county, including Palo Alto, Los Altos and Saratoga, have reopened classrooms. Those areas have significantly lower COVID-19 positivity rates than their counterparts in East San Jose and South County.
Under Newsom's plan, once a county moves into the red tier, school districts would be required to open elementary schools and at least one grade of middle and high schools by the end of March, or risk losing funding.
Districts that don't reopen by March 31 would lose 1 percent of their allotment from the $2 billion in reopening money every day they delay. If they did not open by May 15, they would forfeit the funding.
But still, not all school districts in Santa Clara County are on board to reopen.
The Franklin-McKinley School District board voted to resume in-person instruction in August, noting its campuses located in COVID-19 hotspots. The district is located in San Jose's east side, which hosts the ZIP codes with the highest number of cases in the county.
San Jose Unified — the county's largest school district with about 30,000 students — intends to reopen on April 21, after reaching an agreement with teachers that they would be fully vaccinated or county infection levels drop.
Teacher and parent concerns are the propelling reason for continued school closures.
However, Laura Duckworth, a transitional kindergarten teacher at Barron Park Elementary, said reopening has been nothing but smooth-sailing since resuming in-person instruction on Oct. 12.
"I was honestly very surprised at how well the students did with keeping their masks on, with washing hands," Duckworth said. "It just became another routine that we did in the classroom."
Because not all parents were comfortable sending their children back to campus, she teaches 10 students in person in the morning. In the afternoon, she turns on Zoom to educate her remaining seven students.
She said she understands parent and teacher concerns and was very nervous in the beginning of the reopening, especially since she still hasn't received the vaccine. But the value of having students in the classroom is unmatched.
"If you're comfortable and ready, I say give it a try," Duckworth said. "I've had my own two children that I've sent to school as well. And they have had a great time. Being back with the friends and just being in a classroom together is a different experience than being on Zoom together."
Duckworth is getting her first dose of the vaccine on Tuesday.
As the vote on the incentive package nears the Thursday deadline, Governor Newsom's visit to Palo Alto marks a busy travel week, with stops in Kern County, Fresno County, Elk Grove, Palo Alto, San Luis Obispo County and Ventura County since Feb 22.
And with two weeks to go before the recall filing deadline, the governor's political opponents are are seizing on the moment, confident they will have enough signatures by the March 17 deadline to qualify for a special recall election.
Challenger John Cox tweeted this morning:
"Thanking Gavin Newsom for actions he's taken since the Recall became real, is like thanking the guy that punched you in the face and broke your nose for driving you to the hospital."
Newsom did not directly address questions about the tweet from Cox or the recall effort.
PJ Johnston, a veteran political strategist and longtime Newsom ally based in San Francisco, said the governor was right in his approach not to give the recall election any momentum before it becomes official.
"I think he wisely is not paying too much attention to it," said Johnston. "As interesting, and titillating as a story about a recall is, day in and day out, the less sexy, less titillating work of providing for the people of California day in and day out, is how he will be judged. And I think he is appropriately focused on that."
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