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By Tim Hunt

Governor starts to get serious about reopening schools

Uploaded: Jan 14, 2021

Gov. Gavin Newsom finally has awakened to the reality that young children desperately need to get back into the classroom.

That's true for all students, many of whom have not had in-person instruction since mid-March. It's also reflective of the pressure he's feeling from a variety of political fronts.

The governor made reopening schools the focus of administration this month, calling it out before releasing his record $227 billion budget last week. On this one, the governor is right. He's facing pressure from fellow Democrats in the Legislature, parents and businesses to get kids back into the classroom.

The long-term negative impacts, particularly for children living in poverty, have been laid out by researchers who identified the years of life lost to poor educational outcomes. It dwarfs the total of deaths due to the virus. For kindergartners through third-graders -- the key years for mastering reading and math fundamentals -- Zoom cannot replace a teacher or an aide working hands-on with the student.

The governor ponied up a big chunk of change ($2 billion) to encourage school districts and teachers' unions to reopen schools. Newsom's four children have been attending a private school in person since the fall. The unions, statewide, have balked at returning to the classroom. His initial proposal, that he's asked legislators pass this month, calls for younger students to be back in the classroom by the middle of February and reopening plans be submitted by Feb. 1.

CalMatters reported that California Federation of Teachers President Jeff Freitas issued this statement, "We are in the middle of a devastating COVID-19 surge and any discussion of returning to in-person instruction is premature."

That frames the discussion as Newsom strives to avoid a conflict with the teachers' unions that are major donors to his campaign and other Democratic campaigns. That's statewide, but, short of legislation, the state has little to say about school districts. The state controls the funding, but the decisions are made locally across the state.

Certainly, the governor can push from his bully pulpit, but it's school superintendents, school trustees and local teachers' unions that ultimately will make the decisions. And then parents will decide what is best for their children.

CalMatters reported that large superintendents already have pushed back against Newsom's reopening proposal as has the non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office, who called the timeline "unfeasible." Los Angeles Superintendent Austin Beutner said the governor's plan "falls well short of what's needed to help our schools" because it neither sets across-the-board safety standards nor sets a requirement for when schools should reopen.

"It leaves the definition of a safe school environment and the standard for reopening classrooms up to the individual discretion of 1,037 school districts across the state, creating a patchwork of safety standards in the face of a statewide health crisis," Beutner said.

Newsom faces other pressure points, most notably a recall drive that was going nowhere until news broke about his unmasked, indoor dinner at the $350-plate French Laundry in the Napa Valley. That sparked life into the recall campaign that also received an influx of cash last month. How well the governor does with vaccinations and school reopenings will play directly into that campaign.

Here in the Tri-Valley, the regional shutdown has stopped local schools from the reopening process. Pleasanton trustees had voted unanimously in December to reopen the lower elementary grades (pre-kindergarten to second) this month and had received the county approval to do so. The stay-at-home order must be lifted before local schools can reopen beyond the small group instruction being offered currently to students who need more help.

The plan is for hybrid instruction with students attending school for four half-days weekly with Wednesday reserved for virtual instruction. It's similar in Livermore, while Dublin staff is still working on a final version of their plan.

The hybrid plans are a good first step, but should be just that -- a step toward full-day, in-person instruction.