California’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic has been, to say the least, erratic with ever-changing state decrees on business openings and closings and personal conduct and, most recently, a chaotic rollout of vaccinations.
There has been, however, one constant. The state’s public schools quickly shut down when Gov. Gavin Newsom declared an emergency and assumed one-man command of the crisis and with few exceptions have remained shuttered ever since.
The shutdown, coupled with other restrictions, effectively quarantined 6 million school children in their homes while school authorities attempted, with uneven success at best, to continue classes via the internet.
Everyone agrees that the situation has stunted educational achievement with potentially immense adverse consequences for both the students — particularly poor and English-learner students already at risk of failure — and the larger society.
It could even be worse. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last fall, projects that heavy loss of classroom instruction could slice years off the lives of students.
“In this decision analytical model of years of life potentially lost under differing conditions of school closure, the analysis favored schools remaining open,” the study concluded. “Future decisions regarding school closures during the pandemic should consider the association between educational disruption and decreased expected lifespan and give greater weight to the potential outcomes of school closure on children’s health.”
All of the adults involved in educational policy — Newsom, legislators, local officials, teachers, school unions and school trustees and administrators — agree that the schools must reopen. However, they’ve wrangled incessantly over when and how.
For months, Newsom shied away from directly confronting the school reopening issue, saying he wanted schools to reopen, but didn’t want to intrude on local authority. However, it was evident that he really didn’t want to confront school unions, particularly the powerful California Teachers Association, which were setting virtually impossible conditions for reopening.
Late last year, the political dynamics of the impasse changed when a nascent drive to recall Newsom suddenly shifted into high gear.
Sensational revelations that the governor had attended a lobbyist’s birthday party at an expensive Napa restaurant, violating in spirit his “stay-at-home-and-wear-your-mask” admonitions, seemed to spark the shift. However, as signature-gathering on recall petitions has surged, another factor has been parental anger over inaction on reopening schools.
Suddenly, or so it seemed, Newsom morphed from reluctant bystander to ardent school reopening advocate, declaring that schoolhouse doors could swing open safely without the stringent conditions laid down by the CTA and other unions and backed by union-friendly Democratic legislators.
The wrangling may be headed for a climax of some kind, either a standoff or a negotiated agreement.
Legislative leaders have unveiled a reopening plan that mirrors the financial aspects of Newsom’s proposal — billions of extra dollars to compensate for the void in classroom time — but essentially gives the unions a veto over when and how classroom instruction would resume.
Newsom immediately rejected it, saying, “I made it crystal clear. I can’t support something that’s going to delay the safe reopening of schools for our kids. … We would be, if we adopted that proposal, an extreme outlier.” He did, however, offer an olive branch by setting aside 10% of the state’s vaccination supplies to inoculate teachers.
With his new assertiveness after many months of passivity, Newsom is signaling to parents — potential recall election voters — that he’s on their side. But every day schools remain closed, the toll on students increases, the anger of stressed-out parents grows and the issue looms ever-larger as a factor in the recall movement.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California's state Capitol works and why it matters.
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