OAKLAND – A long-awaited deal to encourage the reopening of California schools may give families hope, but it is unlikely to quickly improve Governor Gavin Newsom’s political position.
It’s been almost a year since California schools closed their doors indefinitely to fight the coronavirus. In the months that followed, the prolonged shutdowns became a main source of public anger that propelled an effort to recall Newsom from his post. Republican candidates blasted Democratic Governor, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, making a habit of staging campaign events outside of schools and lambasting Newsom again on Monday for failing to demand that they open immediately. Tired parents rallied across party lines.
Some of the biggest political damage to Newsom has already been done, with recall organizers confident they will qualify their special election this month. It may be too late for the governor to turn the tide on the hundreds of thousands of voters who have signed petitions; he may now be focusing on saving his job ahead of a potential campaign.
These dynamics created a political imperative for Newsom to show progress. While he hailed a deal on Monday to “create conditions under which we await in-person instructions,” political observers said the legislation itself may not pay quick dividends for the beleaguered governor. The general reaction seems to be less of a celebration than a shrug at the moment, especially since closed schools don’t open overnight.
“Pandemic fatigue has taken hold in many families,” said Professor Julie Marsh, director of policy analysis at the University of Southern California for Education in California. “For some, they’re going to look at this and wonder what took so long and feel it. should have arrived earlier.
In recent weeks, Newsom has often spoken of the need for swift action and lobbied its allies by warning that union demands would prevent schools from reopening this year. After months of negotiations, Newsom and legislative leaders unveiled a pact to speed up the process by offering money to school districts that start expelling students by the end of March, including in areas of the state with the highest infection rates. Falling coronavirus rates and Newsom’s decision to reserve doses of the vaccine for educators should put more schools in a position to restart in-person learning.
“Many of our children and caregivers are celebrating this day because we are all united to return safely to schools,” Newsom said at a press conference Monday with legislative leaders.
Even as Newsom touted the deal, he pointed out the limits of his authority over a decentralized archipelago of locally administered school districts. The agreement encourages districts to reopen but does not force them to do so.
Democratic strategist Katie Merrill noted that “there’s a lot of carrot in this deal and not a lot of stick” – and voters could hold Newsom accountable if the carrot isn’t enough to attract school districts and unions.
“The governor doesn’t have a lot of control over this,” Merrill said, “but he will pay the price if local school districts and teacher unions don’t reopen schools.”
Some parents immediately reported that the plan will need to remove a high barrier of skepticism. A statewide group advocating for schools to resume in-person teaching denounced the plan as a weak half-measure, noting that it would allow some schools to remain closed and advocating for elected officials to adopt a more energetic approach.
“It’s not a breakthrough, it’s a failure,” Pat Reilly, a parent from Berkeley and a member of Open Schools California, said in a statement. “Make no mistake, there will still be schools closed and children left behind in a month and months afterwards until the governor, legislature or courts force them to open.”
The deal is unlikely to affect the recall’s chances of qualifying for the ballot. Supporters have been collecting signatures for months, capitalizing on widespread discontent that increased during a second lockdown this winter. They say they’ve already collected enough signatures to trigger an election, and the mid-March deadline for submitting signatures will likely come before parents see much concrete progress on the reopening.
Education officials hoped the legislation would build on existing advances. Association of California School Administrators lobbyist Edgar Zazueta noted that even before the deal, “there is more momentum to move into in-person teaching than last year,” as more than districts are implementing reopening plans. Zazueta predicted that there would still be resistance among large urban districts, but suggested that it would become more difficult for them to remain closed as they became outliers.
“This pressure, seeing the neighboring districts around them opening up, I think parents are going to take note and there is going to be acute pressure,” Zazueta said. “For those few communities that don’t see the movement and don’t hear their district announce a plan, there is a risk of frustration – ‘what about us?’
Meanwhile, teacher unions and reluctant families may blame the governor and lawmakers for suspending the money to reopen by April 1. While the deal preserves local control, groups of school workers have been reluctant all year to return and accused supporters of the reopening of downplaying their safety concerns.
The California Teachers Association said on Monday that the bill “brings us one step closer,” but highlighted the role of local unions in reopening schools and even cited state law from 1976 which grants them rights. negotiation. They praised some additional safety protections in the plan, including dedicated educator vaccines and funding for ventilation upgrades.
If an influx of funding speeds up the reopening process, it is not clear that this would dispel the parental surge that has fueled an anti-Newsom backlash. The most likely scenario is that some schools will once again welcome part-time students during the final months of the typical school year. They will also focus on the younger classes, leaving high school students at home to wait several more weeks. District-by-district decisions mean that the process will be different depending on where families live.
“I think when the details come out it’s going to leave a lot of people frustrated,” said Andrew Acosta, a father from Sacramento and a consultant for the Democratic campaign. “I think that’s where they are at and where they’ll be for the rest of the school year.”
For parents who have simmered in a mixture of resentment and desperation for nearly a year, these partial and patchy results may not be enough to allay a deep-rooted sense of disappointment with officials who couldn’t get kids back to class anymore. sooner or more fully. Democratic consultant Robin Swanson noted that with the departure of widely vilified former President Donald Trump, voters “seek to hold leaders accountable for their frustrations” – Newsom among them.
“It’s a start. It looks like he’s working to get out of a political turn,” Swanson said of the deal.
“He’s at the table, he’s showing he’s trying to find a way out,” Swanson added, “and I really hope we get there.”