Insisting that safety is “non-negotiable,” Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a $2 billion plan Wednesday to get young students back to in-person learning as early as spring, although it was unclear how quickly such a move would occur in Southern California, which is being particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proposal calls for a “phased-in, in-person learning strategy that would focus disproportionately on those youngest cohorts and those that are most in need — our high-risk children, special education, those populations — foster care, homeless children — and others that need that extra amount of support,” Newsom said.

The plan would include $2 billion to bankroll safety measures at schools that return to in-person instruction, including COVID-19 testing and protective equipment. It calls for frequent testing of students and staff, masks for everyone on campus and prioritizing school staff for vaccinations.

Newsom’s proposal would begin with students in pre-kindergarten through second grade. And while the push is to resume in-person learning as much as possible, distance learning will still be available.

“Distance learning will still remain an option for parents and students,” he said. “There’s a lot of trepidation, we recognize that, a lot of anxiety, about going back into the classroom, which one has to clearly acknowledge. Not just for our teachers but also for our parents, particularly with kids who may have unique conditions.”

Despite the governor’s aggressive timeline, it was unclear how quickly students in the Southland might be in a position to return to classes on a widespread basis. The Los Angeles Unified School District recently canceled all in-person instruction on campuses in response to the current surge in cases.

LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner, along with superintendents from Long Beach, San Diego, Fresno, Oakland, Sacramento and San Francisco, sent a letter to the governor last month calling for a coordinated statewide plan for returning students to classroom. Those superintendents issued a joint statement Wednesday they will be reviewing Newsom’s proposal “to make sure the guidelines address the needs of students and families served by large, urban school districts across the state.”

Debra Duardo, Los Angeles County’s superintendent of schools, applauded the governor for providing guidance for the eventual reopening of campuses, and said she would be “engaging our 80 district superintendents in conversations” in January, and would work in conjunction with county health officials to discuss a path forward.

“Furthermore, I continue to urge the state to prioritize the vaccination of K-12 and early education teachers, administrators and staff as an essential step in getting our public schools and early learning and care centers fully reopened,” Duardo said. “Right now, L.A. County is facing a horrific surge of COVID cases. The absolute best thing we all can do to reopen our schools is to strictly follow public health guidelines. Please help by avoiding gatherings, staying at home as much as possible, wearing your masks and maintaining a six-foot distance from others when you do need to leave home.”

Assemblywoman Suzette Martinez Valladares, R-Santa Clarita, said Newsom’s announcement is long overdue.

“We cannot continue to fail our future, our kids,” she wrote in a Twitter post. “Europe has kept in-person learning open for the majority of the pandemic. Which now provides us with evidence that schools are not major spreading centers. The social and emotional development during the foundational years of preschool to second grade cannot be replicated through distance learning. Returning young students to schools is vital and long overdue. Most states had plans in place months ago.”

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