SACRAMENTO — A frustrated Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday said school administrators and teachers unions should agree as soon as possible to reopen schools for younger students — or else be clear with families that they will not return to classrooms at all this academic year.
Newsom was responding to growing demands that all teachers receive vaccines first, but also a long list of conditions that go beyond what the governor has proposed as safe to reopen schools that have been shut for nearly a year. The vast majority of California’s 6 million public schoolchildren haven’t been on campuses since March.
“If we wait for the perfect, we might as well just pack it up and just be honest with folks that we’re not going to open for in-person instruction this school year,” Newsom said during a candid conversation with the Association of California School Administrators that was on YouTube but later made inaccessible.
“You find whatever you look for. If we want to find reasons not to open, we’ll find plenty of reasons,” Newsom added. “If we want to start building on ways to strategize to find ways to getting where we all want to go, we’ll figure that out as well.”
On Wednesday, the California Teachers Association sent a letter to Newsom calling for teachers to be vaccinated before they return to K-12 campuses. Newsom has prioritized teachers in his vaccination plan, but it’s hard to predict when more than 300,000 K-12 educators can actually receive the shot as the state grapples with widespread supply and distribution problems.
The governor’s frustration appeared to be tied to that reality. Education and child care workers are eligible in the first tier of Phase 1B, which the state has activated. But Newsom two weeks ago added residents over 65 to that tier, and counties and health providers have so far prioritized seniors over teachers, noting the older population’s greater health risk and an easier screening process for age. State public health officials have estimated that it could take until June just to reach Californians 65 and older.
The governor has proposed having the youngest students in transitional kindergarten through second grade return on Feb. 16. But state lawmakers, school administrators and teachers unions have thus far balked at his reopening plan — which requires legislative approval — and that date seems nearly impossible to reach now.
When asked by ACSA Executive Director Wesley Smith on Thursday about union demands for vaccines, Newsom said elementary schools are safe to reopen without them, pointing to research released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shows schools using masks and social distancing protocols have had little virus transmission and outbreaks.
Newsom reiterated that he has placed teachers in first tier, but that counties get to decide where they fall within that tier, and that the state is still struggling with supply.
"If everybody has to be vaccinated, we might as well just tell people the truth: there will be no in-person instruction in the state of California. Just tell them the truth. Don’t mislead people," Newsom said. "If vaccinations is the absolute, then maybe we should be having a different conversation with the people of the state of California and parents."
Newsom’s frank declaration highlighted the governor’s frustration with attempts to reopen California classrooms. The governor has offered a record amount of funding to schools and boosted access to personal protective equipment and coronavirus testing as a way to encourage schools to reopen. His latest attempt includes $2 billion in grants that would go to elementary schools willing to open next month.
But his Schools for All plan has been met with criticism from superintendents, unions and lawmakers alike. Some large districts say they can’t afford the testing requirements in order to be eligible, and that unions won’t sign off on anything that doesn’t include a vaccination plan.
Teachers and some parents remain wary of returning to campus due to lingering high infection rates. While the winter surge is declining, coronavirus spread remains higher than it was throughout most of the fall, when most school staff said it was still unsafe. Low-income families of color have suffered worse than others from the virus, and many have indicated they are more reluctant to send their children back.
The California Teachers Association has said that schools should only open in the state’s red tier or better, which would require a county’s case rate to fall below seven daily cases per 100,000 residents. The governor’s new reopening plan says it is safe to return when cases reach 25 daily cases per 100,000 residents, more than three times what CTA considers acceptable.
Newsom acknowledged on Thursday the criticism of the plan and expects details to change in negotiations with the Legislature, but said something had to be done. The reopening goals outlined in his December proposal were the planting of a "proverbial flag,” Newsom said, and meant to accelerate reopening conversations.
Newsom said that if schools don’t act now, the academic loss for children will be worse than expected. President Joe Biden has renewed the sense of urgency, vowing to reopen schools within his first 100 days in office. But California has to do its own work now, or at-risk students like English learners will be pushed even further behind, the governor said.
“I can assure you, the pressure we’re getting today is going to pale in comparison to where we’ll be in a few weeks if these numbers continue and other districts across the country start moving in the direction that the new administration wants them to move in," Newsom said.
Newsom applauded teachers for their work over the past year but said that distance learning does not work for many students, and discussed his struggle with dyslexia as a child and his current struggles with his own four children.
His 4-year-old son is "not learning" online, he said.
“He talks about Zoom school, it’s not working for him. It’s not working for his parents,” Newsom said. “…He’s just not paying attention.”
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