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Draft guidelines for reopening schools include long to-do list

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 5/29/2020 By Jill Tucker and Dustin Gardiner

The state’s draft guidelines for reopening schools detail a costly and logistically challenging checklist that educators say will be nearly impossible to complete, given projected budget cuts.

The Chronicle obtained a summary of the draft, with the governor expected to release a final version Friday, that will guide a return to school for California’s 6 million K-12 students. It is possible that students across the state would continue with 100% distance learning simply because their schools cannot afford to reopen safely, education officials said Thursday based on expected safety guidelines.

The list includes installation of handwashing stations, 6 feet of separation at all times and staggered student arrival times, among other recommendations.

The guidelines also call for schools to keep small groups of kids together and isolated from other students throughout the day. Meals would be served and eaten in classrooms. Classes would be confined to separate areas in the schoolyard for recess.

Before entering school each morning, all students and staff would be screened for COVID-19 symptoms, potentially including temperature checks. Those who show symptoms would be isolated until they can leave school.

Teachers would need to wear cloth masks at all times, and students encouraged to do so whenever social distancing isn’t possible. Classrooms would be designed to space desks 6 feet apart, if possible, or stagger students to avoid face-to-face contact.

The preliminary recommendations also include a protocol to address a positive case of coronavirus at a school.

Education officials have indicated prior to the release that projected budget cuts of $1,230 per student will make it nearly impossible to reopen schools safely, said Claudia Briggs, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association, who had not yet seen the draft.

“The budget proposal that the governor put forth in the May revision (of the state budget) completely contradicts and goes against everything that needs to be funded,” she said.

The draft also included the need for extensive training on checking for coronavirus signs and symptoms; disinfecting and cleaning; the proper use of masks and other protective equipment; and how to implement social distancing inside and outside classrooms.

State schools chief Tony Thurmond is expected to release a detailed guide in early June to help schools with the specifics on reopening, including examples of how to socially distance; how to screen and monitor students and staff for coronavirus symptoms; and how to create a hybrid model that combines in-person and remote learning.

Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, has been among the educators warning that if schools are forced to lay off employees, they’d be be hard-pressed to impose extra safety protocols, like reducing classroom sizes or more bus trips to carry fewer students per trip, steps they anticipate could be in the forthcoming guidelines.

Freitas said that even before Newsom’s budget, which amounts to a roughly 13% cut, schools were underfunded to the point that teachers used their own money to buy supplies like paper, pencils and tissues.

“There’s no way we could reopen with less money,” Freitas said in an earlier interview. “We can’t do more with less.”

The California Education Coalition, composed of labor unions and representatives of administrators, school boards and parents, urged the governor and state legislators Thursday afternoon to reject budget cuts, which would prevent schools from opening up classrooms in the fall.

The “wave of costs” associated with reopening will overwhelm districts, including increasing staffing to clean, screen and teach both online and in-person classes, said Troy Flint, spokesman for the California School Boards Association

“School board members are grappling with how we can resume schools in a safe and effective manner,” he said. “There is simply not enough money.”

State legislators, who must pass a budget, have also pushed back against the notion that schools could improve public health modifications amid steep cuts.

“Those things just don’t square,” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland.

Bonta and other progressive lawmakers have said the state should instead consider raising taxes, potentially on millionaires or deep-pocketed corporations, to avoid eroding social safety-net programs like education.

“I just don’t think we’ve been talking about revenue enough,” he said. “The protocols for public health really scream out for additional investment and support.”

State Senate Democrats, meanwhile, released a draft budget plan Thursday that aims to prevent about $8.1 billion in proposed cuts to education, including delaying sending some funding to districts if the federal government doesn’t provide more relief.

Many schools are scheduled to reopen in mid-August, but at this point and given uncertainty about cuts, it’s not clear how that will happen, said Molly McGee Hewitt, executive director of the California Association of School Business Officials.

In the past, budget cuts meant fewer resources, but health and safety weren’t at risk, Education Coalition officials said. Districts made classes larger and laid off librarians, but there was never a question they wouldn’t open the doors.

“There are so many unknowns in what we’re doing,” Hewitt said. “We’ve always had the show-must-go-on mentality.

“COVID is different.”

Jill Tucker and Dustin Gardiner are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: jtucker@sfchronicle.com, dustin.gardiner@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @jilltucker, @dustingardiner

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