By Laurel Rosenhall, CalMatters
Increasingly exasperated that most public schools remain closed even as coronavirus cases plummet nearly a year into the pandemic, California parents are taking to the streets. They’re protesting in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley. They’re trying to recall school board members in San Francisco and San Ramon. They’re mounting billboards along freeways in Sonoma County and Sacramento demanding that the government #OpenSchoolsNow.
The campaign to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has seized on the frustrations. Republicans hoping to replace him are staging campaign events outside shuttered schools and highlighting that California lags the rest of the nation when it comes to getting kids back in the classroom. Newsom’s political future may hinge, in part, on how much longer millions of children remain stuck on Zoom.
But the state’s education system is incredibly fragmented, with more than 1,000 school districts tasked with deciding — mostly through negotiations with their local labor unions — when and how to reopen. Those districts must follow laws crafted by a Legislature with close ties to organized labor, and signed by a governor who was elected with the support of the teachers’ union but now finds himself at odds with it over his objections to making vaccine access a requirement for reopening.
Districts in San Diego, Long Beach and Berkeley recently struck deals to reopen this spring. But despite pediatricians and infectious disease experts saying it’s safe to open schools as long as precautions are in place, many large districts say they won’t be able to without new direction from the state Capitol. Newsom and legislative leaders have so far been unable to agree on a plan that could prod more schools to bring students back to campus.
“The fundamental breakdown here is a big struggle between management and labor on what ought to exist at the state level regarding the rules around reopening,” said Kevin Gordon, a lobbyist who represents numerous school districts. “That’s 100% of the problem.”
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