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Questions surround Gov. Newsom's proposal to open schools early

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SACRAMENTO — California Gov. Gavin Newsom's idea to reopen schools as soon as late July presents a “herculean task” for schools, districts and parents — sparking questions about what classrooms will look like, how students and teachers will interact and whether schools have the money or infrastructure to pull it off.

Newsom's statement Tuesday that the new school year could start this summer to make up for lost learning caught many outside his office by surprise.

“California schools are very eager to hear what the plan is (and) how we’re going to fund that plan, because ambition and rhetoric only get you so far,” said California School Boards Association spokesman Troy Flint, calling it a “herculean task” that will require intense guidance and investment from the state.

In a livestream for parents on Wednesday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said the state won't ask for schools to restart until it's safe.

Among the questions: Would the school year last longer? Would teachers, food service or other workers get hazard pay? How would schools practice social distancing in already crowded classrooms? Would the state change its funding formula to allow a mix of classroom and remote learning? Will teachers unions agree to the changes?

“It was running counter to what not only me, but my colleagues, were thinking about possibly delaying the start of school,” said Don Austin, superintendent of the Palo Alto Unified School District. He said districts have gotten little direction from the state Department of Education since most districts closed schools in mid-March.

“We’re hearing the governor’s every thought through press conferences and then trying to respond locally," Austin said.

The state does not have the power to tell districts when to reopen, and Newsom never issued a statewide order mandating they shutdown, though nearly all districts did when he imposed a statewide stay-at-home order in mid-March.

District leaders have vastly different thoughts on reopening based on their communities.

In Fresno County, the Clovis Unified School District is discussing reopening as early as May 22 if it can be done safely for its 43,000 students. The district would hold classes through the June 5 end of the year then have a summer break, allowing seniors to celebrate milestones and younger students to get continuity, said spokeswoman Kelly Avants.

Filiberto Gonzalez, the father of three daughters in first, sixth and seventh grades in Los Angeles, supports the idea of getting kids back in classrooms as soon as possible if it can be done safely, because kids are looking for a sense of normalcy.

But he wonders how schools can do it safely during the hot summer months when air conditioners need to run full blast.

“If they really can’t keep apart, and if the AC is a must, then can we avoid making our schools a real petri dish?” he asked.

Districts are also facing looming financial concerns after tax revenues have been slashed because of the pandemic. That could lead to program cuts, layoffs or even bankruptcy for some. In January, Newsom proposed boosting school funding by $1.2 billion, but with revenues tumbling and expenses mounting, he's likely to introduce a radically different proposal next month.

School boards want him to keep the extra funding, noting California's high child poverty rates that are only likely to rise during a recession.

Jesse Melgar, a spokesman for Newsom, said the administration will work with lawmakers, state education officials, local school leaders and teachers on plans to reopen schools.

“The governor started the next set of conversations about safely resuming in-person instruction in schools, through summer programs or an earlier start of the school year," Melgar said in an emailed statement.

In Palo Alto, meanwhile, Austin is scrambling to locate extra space on school campuses and maybe city buildings so students can be spread out when they do return. Once he knows how much space there is, educators can start planning what a return looks like.

“Not only is this a collective bargaining state where (Newsom) doesn’t have the authority to tell us to open earlier, that’s just a matter of fact, it’s really not taking into account the planning that goes into the art of teaching,” Austin said.

“There will be no excuse in the fall if we don’t come back better prepared for blended or distance learning programs with students.”

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