California lawmakers want more leadership from Newsom on school reopening

By Mackenzie Mays
·4 min read

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California assemblymembers demanded on Tuesday more specific statewide guidelines for school reopening, emphasizing that equity gaps will otherwise grow as some students return to classrooms faster than others.

The concerns: Lawmakers during an Assembly education budget hearing called on Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Public Health to establish clear requirements for schools to reopen, including Covid-19 testing expectations for teachers and students.

While the state issued guidelines for schools in June that included mask and temperature check requirements, reopening decisions are otherwise left up to local school districts. That has resulted in private schools and schools in more affluent communities opening while large public districts continue to debate their return timeline and call for more support from the state.

“We’re creating the perfect storm, where private schools can figure it out — they have enough money to figure it out — and we have some public school districts that are just going like the wild west and running into problems,” Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) said. “We have spent more time and had clearer guidance on bars and movie theaters than we have on schools.”

Lawmakers called for more Covid-19 data from the California Department of Education, saying little is known about how school reopening attempts have gone so far. California is one of 11 states that do not release school-level data on coronavirus infections, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

So far, only two school-related outbreaks have been reported, affecting 17 teachers and students, according to Erica Pan, a state health officer with CDPH, who called the data "very encouraging.”

The demands: Pan said more school guidance, including on coronavirus testing, is coming but could not promise lawmakers an ETA on Tuesday.

A frustrated Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) said that until then, many schools will refuse to reopen, as access to testing has become a sticking point for districts and teachers unions at the bargaining table over reopening plans.

“Everybody is all over the map, and this testing issue is central to every bargaining discussion up and down the state,” he said. “If you don’t come out with testing protocols for our state, it puts our districts in a very tough position. We’re in the middle of a school year. Without this guidance, it might be virtually impossible for schools to open up.”

Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) pressed Newsom's staff about more funding for schools to tackle issues like testing, suggesting that adjustments be made to the current budget.

In response, Jessica Holmes, budget manager for Newsom’s Department of Finance, pointed to $5.3 billion in state and federal funds given to schools for pandemic response and said “schools have what they need on a macro level.” But she said that could change, as the pandemic is constantly evolving.

Background: Under Newsom’s reopening guidelines, the vast majority of counties have been given the green light to reopen indoor activities, including schools. But many large districts, including Los Angeles Unified, have yet to reopen.

Some districts across the state have opened to small cohorts of their youngest students and have plans to attempt fuller scale reopenings in January. Others have opened with hybrid learning for all grades.

Ultimately, Newsom has left the decision up to school districts in counties that have lowered their coronavirus infection rates. That has led to intense negotiations between employee unions and district administrators.

While local control is typically heralded by districts in normal years, lawmakers and district leaders at Tuesday’s hearing said that schools need more uniform state direction amid the pandemic.

“Schools are receiving a lot of guidance about what to consider for reopening but not what they need to do to reopen,” said Amy Li, an analyst with the Legislative Analyst's Office.

While the American Academy of Pediatrics California testified at the hearing about the benefits of reopening schools sooner rather than later, others warned that teachers and staff do not feel safe enough to return without an adequate testing plan.

Bill Simmons, president of the San Juan Teachers Association in Sacramento County, said it was ironic Tuesday that he was placed in a separate room from lawmakers in order to testify because of coronavirus precautions.

“If you can't have me in the same room with your committee of five people, why would you think that you should be able to bring students back into a classroom?" he said.

What’s next: Lawmakers said they will continue to pressure the state to release more reopening guidance on schools as soon as possible.

All eyes are also on another potential federal stimulus package that could infuse schools with funding to better respond to issues like testing and personal protective equipment.