Politico

Newsom signs California schools bill, but SF Democrat says leaders still must 'beg' for reopening


Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation Friday allocating billions of dollars to get schools reopened more quickly after months of struggling to reach agreement with Democratic lawmakers.

The compromise measure offers $2 billion to schools that begin returning the youngest students to classrooms this month. It also channels $4.2 billion toward reversing academic and social impacts suffered by students who have now spent nearly a year of remote learning.

“This is the right time to sign this bill,” Newsom said during a virtual signing ceremony with legislative and education leaders. “This is the right time to safely reopen for in-person instruction our schools.”

The bigger picture: Newsom and lawmakers were under tremendous political pressure to act on schools. Students have still not returned in California’s biggest cities, intensifying the parental frustration that has helped power a campaign to recall Newsom.

But there is no guarantee the bill will significantly change things. It does not mandate that schools reopen. That’s a decision worked out between local school districts and school employee unions, and some teachers union leaders have already signaled their dissatisfaction as educators continue to fear infection.

Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) conceded the measure was “not the panacea” and could mean just 12 days of in-person instruction in Sacramento between now and the summer for some students.

“We’re gonna go home to all our districts and beg all our districts to open up, use this money and do everything possible — I know I’ve got a big hurdle with my district in San Francisco,” said Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco).

Despite those headwinds, an improving public health picture is moving districts closer to reopening. Infection and hospitalization rates are dropping as more Californians get vaccinated — and Newsom moved recently to set aside 10 percent of doses for educators, helping to address concerns about the risk of returning.

“It’s not a final accomplishment. Instead it is more like passing a key class on the road to graduation. Now we can envision the end,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) said during a signing ceremony. “We are starting to see the news stories in which district by district parents can learn about the return to schools that officials are planning for their children.”

What’s next: Districts are racing to get their teachers vaccinated over the next few weeks and preparing their campuses for the return of students after a year-long absence. Some of the state’s largest districts have reached deals with their teachers unions on a return date with a host of safety conditions.

But there remain notable standouts. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the state’s largest with 600,000 students, has yet to strike a deal with United Teachers Los Angeles, which made clear this week that it has serious reservations about going back this school year due to higher infection rates in some neighborhoods.

San Francisco Unified and Oakland Unified likewise are still not ready to commit to a return date. And Sacramento City Unified is hung up on a ventilation safety plan that its union previously found insufficient.

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