SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom had dreams last spring of opening classrooms in the most populous state by late summer, angering teachers who felt his plans were premature and unsafe.
Ten months later, most of California’s schools remain shut, the governor is frustrated and the state may be the main obstacle in the way of President Joe Biden reopening most of the nation’s schools in his first 100 days in office.
Newsom, who normally measures his words and maintains a controlled public persona, last week boiled over and told local superintendents they should give up hope of reopening this school year if “everybody has to be vaccinated.” In a meeting inadvertently streamed on YouTube, the governor lost his cool and said, if nothing gives, they might as well tell the “truth” to parents: “There will be no in-person instruction in the state of California.”
Newsom’s rare candid moment serves as a warning to the White House: Biden’s reopening plans are in serious jeopardy, and labor-strong California — with hundreds of local unions at the table — offers the toughest test of all. Biden will need to rely on governors and school superintendents to open classrooms if he has any chance of fulfilling his pledge, and they’ll in turn need to convince educators to show up on the job.
The vast majority of California’s 6 million public schoolchildren haven’t seen a classroom since coronavirus shutdowns in March. California’s sky-high infection rates this winter, coupled with a long history of empowering local teachers and district officials, have made school reopening a non-starter in most cities. That has run headlong into a vaccine release that is desperately short on supply while giving teachers the expectation they should receive shots before they return.
“I am now concerned about the opening of schools in August 2021,” Natomas Unified Superintendent Chris Evans recently told state lawmakers. “California is largely at a standstill.”
Unlike red-state governors in Florida and Texas or Democratic Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Newsom has so far offered teachers an “open hand, not a closed fist,” as he describes it. With a recall threat looming, Newsom can ill afford to ostracize the teachers unions he needs to rally to his defense, and he has repeatedly said he is a firm believer in collective bargaining.
Rather than order teachers back, the governor has left decisions up to local districts and offered financial incentives and support for testing and personal protective equipment. That approach hasn’t worked. According to informal data gathered by state education officials and supplemented by POLITICO, about 70 percent of the state’s school districts are still in distance learning — accounting for roughly 85 percent of the student population.
California officials happy to see President Donald Trump go are putting their faith in Biden. While the president does not have the authority to unilaterally open schools, he has announced plans to provide more vaccines, which could help bring teachers back, and more funding for ventilation upgrades and other safety measures.
As part of his plan to get a majority of K-8 schools “safely open” in his first 100 days, Biden has called for national school reopening standards and for Congress to direct at least $130 billion to schools to expand testing and other protocols. An additional $350 billion in flexible state and local relief funds can help districts avoid layoffs and close budget gaps, according to Biden’s plan.
The commitment to reopen schools is testing the Democratic Party’s relationship with teachers unions, typically its strongest allies. And nowhere do teachers unions wield more power than California. The issue has turned the liberal state’s top Democrats against unions for the first time.
The following clips are recordings of Newsom speaking last week in an unusually candid conversation with the Association of California School Administrators.
Newsom and Biden are walking an increasingly thin political tightrope, juggling demands from those unions with those from frustrated parents and concerned education advocates who want schools open now.
Teachers say they, too, are tired of distance learning. But they assert the risks are too high — that they will get the virus or bring it home to a loved one. California’s infection rates have fallen in recent weeks, but they were among the highest in the nation in December and early January, enough to force stay-at-home orders across most of the state.
Meanwhile, teachers point to the spread of new variants said to be more contagious. They wonder how they can teach a mix of students in person and online, since some families are likewise wary of returning. And they have been given few explanations so far of how they can receive vaccines, even though Newsom has repeatedly said they are eligible.
“Having vaccinations for educators is neither a new nor unreasonable notion,” California Teachers Association President E. Toby Boyd said in a response last week to Newsom.
Absent a statewide edict suspending union bargaining, California’s more than 1,000 districts and their employees have much more control than Newsom and state lawmakers. Teachers in most cases must agree to any change in classroom conditions, and talks have hit bumps and dead ends in most communities. Even if districts were to try to force staff to return, employees could strike, as those have threatened to do in Chicago.
Newsom’s surprising statements last week have heightened tensions with CTA, which doubled down on its call for vaccines and accused the governor of failing to “operationalize” school safety. But he won praise from frustrated parents and education advocates eager for reopening and tired of changing demands.
Biden’s plans to push Congress for money to help schools open may not be enough for California. The state does not have a cash problem; Newsom has proposed a record amount of K-12 funding as part of his $227 billion budget. For now, vaccine access for teachers may be the main issue.
Newsom has prioritized teachers in his vaccine plan, behind health care workers, but recently added residents 65 and older to the same tier. Counties are in charge of their own rollout, and many have prioritized the older cohort over teachers. A handful of counties have started to vaccinate teachers, meaning parts of the state could reopen while others remain in distance learning.
“I definitely think the ball is in Biden’s court,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said in an interview. “I am encouraged by his ambitious plan to ramp up the vaccines. If a previous president had done more to make sure we had vaccines, we probably could have opened school this month.”
Thurmond became schools chief in 2018 with heavy backing from teachers unions over a candidate backed by charter school donors. The former Democratic lawmaker acknowledged outside “frustration” with unions asking for more testing, more personal protective equipment and more guidelines — all things that Newsom has since delivered. But he said that the moving target isn’t the unions’ fault.
“This whole thing, it just keeps moving,” he said. “The reality is that we don’t understand even how Covid-19 operates. We are at the whim of Covid-19.”
Newsom has implemented strategies similar to other states, creating a pathway for elementary schools to reopen if they so choose and thresholds that determine whether broader reopening is safe based on local Covid-19 case rates.
The governor has been increasingly vocal about his concerns regarding learning loss and how the pandemic will exacerbate the state’s already wide academic gaps suffered by students in lower-income communities. In his biggest attempt yet to push schools to reopen, Newsom introduced a $2 billion plan in December that would give elementary schools grants if they offer in-person instruction starting this month.
The plan would require regular testing of students and teachers and would allow schools to use the money however they want — as long as it benefits in-person instruction, not distance learning.
The proposal has been battered with criticism by superintendents, unions and lawmakers, and it is highly unlikely to advance in the Legislature in time to meet Newsom’s February deadlines.
School districts big and small say they don’t plan to even apply for the money and that the strings attached aren’t worth it. Some districts say they can’t afford to provide the amount of testing required, others say they can’t qualify due to no fault of their own because of high Covid-19 rates in cities.
At the same time, the families that Newsom and other reopening advocates have said they are trying to help the most are among the most reluctant to return. Black and Latino parents have been less interested in sending their children back to campuses, and their communities are the hardest hit by the virus, suffering infections and deaths at a higher rate in one of the nation’s most diverse states.
Big, urban districts say Newsom’s reopening grants will not benefit the very students he seeks to help because those students are more likely to live in communities with the highest virus rates. Los Angeles Unified, California’s largest district and the nation’s second largest, has emerged as a top critic of Newsom’s plan. On Monday, Superintendent Austin Beutner said that schools there will remain closed as long as virus rates are high and teachers are unvaccinated, calling parts of Newsom’s plan “bass ackwards.”
Newsom’s plan requires districts to negotiate the details — and many districts have spent months going back and forth with unions. In some cases, districts have reached agreements with teachers and staff contingent on low infection rates, but that was before Newsom proposed a series of new standards last month that some say require new talks.
“The idea that you could financially incentivize a return to school is a massive oversimplification of the current circumstances. You could double that revenue, and there’s still not a lot of incentive to negotiate what we’ve spent months discussing,” said Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson. “The proof will be borne out immediately on Feb. 16 when none of the major urban districts go back.”
Newsom’s plan doesn’t require what has become a new sticking point for unions: vaccines for teachers and staff.
A day after the CDC reported that Covid-19 transmission in the classroom is minimal, and that schools can safely reopen for in-person instruction with the right safeguards, the California Teachers Association warned it won’t support a return to school without vaccines for employees.
The union has long said that schools should not reopen until case rates fall below seven daily cases per 100,000 residents in a county — a rate most regions haven’t seen since early November. Some teachers say the risk of even one death is too much.
Meanwhile, Newsom is facing a recall attempt over his handling of the pandemic, including his actions on schools. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a moderate Republican, officially launched his gubernatorial campaign Tuesday with frustrated parents by his side in Los Angeles.
A parent organization called Open Schools CA launched last week as a coalition of the local groups that had advocated for in-person instruction to no avail. Members criticized Newsom’s “all carrots and no stick” approach and accused the liberal governor of being beholden to CTA.
The parent group is supporting legislation introduced by Democratic state lawmakers that, if passed, would force certain schools to open in March. Teachers unions started mobilizing against it in December, saying the bill sets arbitrary reopening goals that disregard community virus rates.
“At the end of the day, the biggest impediment to reopening has been the challenge of meeting the demands of organized labor,” said education lobbyist Kevin Gordon, who represents California school superintendents. “What CTA thinks and does is a part of every political calculus that’s made by elected leaders in this state.”
Newsom is also taking heat for lifting stay-at-home orders statewide last week, allowing restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining and salons to resume appointments indoors while most schools remain closed.
“California can be justifiably criticized for not putting schools on par with salons and business and outdoor dining and other categories of openings,” said Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco.
Gandhi said she hopes the state will take Biden’s lead on schools.
“His emphasis on opening in the next 100 days was clear — and that means before September 2021,” she said.
Victoria Colliver contributed to this report.
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