'State-sanctioned segregation': California’s school closure debate boils over

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Hollywood High Teachers Assistant Yolanda Franco conducts class remotely on September 08, 2020 in Los Angeles, Calif. | Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

SACRAMENTO — Pandemic politics have reached a boiling point in California’s school reopening debate.

A hands-off approach by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and public pressure from powerful labor unions has led the state’s biggest city districts to keep schools shuttered, leaving most of California’s 6 million public schoolchildren learning at home. Even San Francisco, which has had one of the lowest infection rates for any U.S. city, hasn’t attempted in-person teaching.

As the pandemic wears on, more Democrats are sounding the alarm after staying silent earlier this fall. They are increasingly distressed that California’s approach has widened the gap between low-income communities of color and wealthier white families.

Frustrations hit a new level in October, when Newsom said his own children had returned to private school in Sacramento — while public school students in the surrounding neighborhoods remained home. Now leaders in the governor’s own party are turning on him, saying the status quo has left the state with crisis-level inequity.

California’s system amounts to “state-sanctioned segregation,” Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach), the chair of the state Assembly Education Committee, said in an interview — a frank declaration for a Democrat consistently supported by the California Teachers Association.

“Some kids get to go and some don’t. That’s not what California stands for,” he said. “I think we need to move faster but remain thoughtful.”

California’s experience could shed light on the complications Democratic President-elect Joe Biden will face in the coming months as he encounters more calls from parents and elected officials to help the growing number of students struggling with distance learning.

It’s possible that labor unions and parents will have more confidence in a Democratic administration to ensure classroom conditions are safe. But Newsom’s experience in the nation’s bluest state proves that school communities aren’t going to turn on a dime just because they have confidence in their leader. For the first two months of the school year, California had some of the nation’s lowest infection rates, while the governor had high approval marks for his handling of the pandemic.

The decisions have become more fraught in the past week as coronavirus cases soar in California and rise in parts of the country that hadn’t experienced the massive surge seen by the Midwest. New York City announced Wednesday that schools would close because the positivity rate reached 3 percent, a threshold the city and teachers agreed would send everyone home. Teachers and many families remain concerned that school sites are unsafe.

The debate is complicated in the nation’s most populous state, where the divide between rich and poor remains stark. For all of the wealth concentrated in the Silicon Valley and Hollywood, nearly 60 percent of California public schoolchildren live in low-income households that qualify for subsidized meals. Districts are reporting sharp increases in students failing, especially in lower-income neighborhoods.

Reopening proponents say growing evidence shows that school transmission is not widespread if safety precautions are taken — and that countries elsewhere have kept schools open while shutting down most other sectors.

But teachers and some families assert that large city districts often have older classrooms with poor ventilation and too little space to socially distance. Many say they or their family members have health risks that make them vulnerable to exposure. And they say that districts and governments have not made testing accessible enough to ensure schools are safe.

They now point to a surge in Covid-19 cases this month, the pace of which Newsom said Monday was “simply without precedent in California’s pandemic history.” Newsom was alarmed enough to place 41 counties in the state’s most restrictive tier, prohibiting indoor church services, dining and gym activities for 94 percent of residents.

“This isn’t politics at all,” California Federation of Teachers President Jeff Freitas said. “There’s no gain from labor in this. Teachers have had their livelihoods threatened or are doing 10 times the amount of work, plus an extra level of stress on themselves. There’s no win for us to say we should do remote learning.”

O’Donnell said his own children are distance learning at Long Beach Unified, and he has joined mayors and superintendents across the state in calling for more action from Newsom. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf have also said classrooms should open quickly but safely, and that schools should prioritize young and low-income students.

“We need strong guidance from the executive branch,” O’Donnell said. “We might be dead last to open, and our students might be dead last when it comes to academic success if we’re not careful.”

While CFT has called on the state to shut down all schools as it did in the spring, Newsom has not forced campuses to close if they already opened. He left a pathway for other districts to open classrooms for elementary students and those with special needs. Newsom is also allowing private schools to stay open; most private campuses opened through a waiver process offered by the governor when the school year began or when their counties had fewer infections.

As with their closures in the spring, school reopening plans in California have often fallen along political lines, with rural and more conservative regions being the first to bring children back. It’s not just politics; less populated counties tended to have lower coronavirus rates that allowed them to start reopening conversations earlier than in cities.

A review of reopening plans for the state’s 25 largest districts found that the only schools that had reopened their doors as of last week, at least in some form, were in predominately Republican areas like Clovis Unified in Fresno County and Poway Unified in San Diego County, or in purple Orange County, where three large districts were offering in-person instruction.

“In places that are bluer, there’s more deference given to the concerns of organized labor,” said veteran education lobbyist Kevin Gordon, who represents school districts. “They’re in a political environment that’s more welcome to that viewpoint. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve seen private schools open at a faster pace. They are much more immune to community pressure than a public school is, and they don’t have to deal with a union. That doesn’t make it good or bad, it’s just the political reality.”

Once a Republican stronghold, Orange County now has more registered Democrats than Republicans. But it still has a pro-small-government libertarian streak, with business owners, residents and Republican elected officials initially resisting public masking requirements to the point that the public health officer resigned under intense pressure.

The county was among the first to push for reopenings, with county education officials in July approving recommendations for in-person learning.

Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner, a former Republican state lawmaker, has been critical of the state’s approach to school openings, saying California leaders have been “marching in lockstep” with teachers unions and have failed to set a clear threshold for when districts should start bringing children back.

“Life is not risk-free, and to suggest that, ‘Oh, our kids will be fine, they won’t fall behind,’ we just need to get to, what, no coronavirus deaths?” Wagner said. “One of my frustrations with our governor is there is no end game. There’s nothing where the governor or the school superintendent say, ‘Let’s get here and we can open up.'”

Without clear direction from the state, local school officials are contending with mounting — and often competing — pressures as infections surge again. Newsom’s dependence on local control has led to a frustrating patchwork of school reopening plans. Schools in the same county are forging ahead with some form of in-person lessons while neighboring districts remain closed.

In Fresno County, Clovis Unified is allowing hyper-local control, giving all elementary schools the green light but leaving it up to principals to decide. The district hopes to give middle and high schools the OK to reopen in January.

Meanwhile, 20 minutes away, Fresno Unified, the state’s third largest district, remains in distance learning, with no set reopening date. The Fresno Teachers Association has said the district should remain in distance learning at least through the first semester and prepare for a “safe, healthy and limited physical return” in the future.

Clovis is whiter, wealthier and more conservative than Fresno — and is the rare California district without a teachers union. Unlike most school boards and government bodies, Clovis Unified trustees never stopped meeting in person, choosing instead to report to monthly board meetings in masks.

“We’re face to face showing ‘Hey, none of us have gotten sick, none of us have died,’” said Clovis Unified Trustee Steven Fogg. “We are in session every single time. We have not stopped being together.”

Fogg, an ophthalmologist endorsed by the Fresno County Republican Party, said he thinks that in California, anti-Trump politics have clouded people’s judgment regarding the safety of reopening schools.

“We’re not trying to force our kids back to school. Our families appreciate their freedoms; they at least want an option and a choice,” Fogg said. “People who lean left want to make the decision for you because they think you may make a poor decision.”

Across town, Fresno Unified school board member Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas thinks the issue of school reopening has been politicized, too, but not in the way that Fogg does. Parental pressure is rising, she said, but safety is the district’s top priority — and everyone has a different definition of what is safe. Remaining in distance learning might be less disruptive for students and parents than attempting reopening and being forced to shut back down because of outbreaks, she said.

“I think this entire pandemic has been politicized to the detriment of our community’s health. The very real consequences that we have yet to fully understand take a back seat,” she said. “From where I sit, it’s people’s lives we’re talking about. We can catch kids up academically, we can figure out a plan for that, but we can’t bring back someone who has long term consequences of this disease or passes away.”

The school debate has become such a touchy subject that some parents are afraid to speak up about their support for reopening in the pandemic.

Mike Creedon, a parent of a first grader and a third grader at Davis Joint Unified, started a petition to open campuses in the liberal college town and said more and more parents are quietly feeling like schools should reopen. But when he posted research articles about low school risk in local Facebook groups, “the hate was palpable,” he said.

“I feel like in Davis, coming out and saying that you want to open the schools is a big risk,” Creedon said. “I think we have lost sight of the kids’ interest in all of this. It became politicized to a degree that we can’t even have a conversation about it anymore. It’s a shame because those with means, those kids are probably going to be fine, but the kids we purport to care the most about for all our talk about equity — those are the kids that we’re leaving behind.”

An EdSource survey last month found that 21 of the state’s 58 counties were offering some in-person learning in each district or planning to do so within weeks, nearly all of them in rural areas. Rural areas typically have lower Covid-19 case rates, with some school districts in the northernmost parts of the state not missing a beat for most of the pandemic. But politics still play a role, said Tim Taylor, executive director of the California Small School Districts Association.

“There’s a correlation between politics and reopening. I’m not afraid to say that. My members in red areas, they definitely feel more confident to reopen. Their fear factor is not nearly as high as it is in the city. But that pressure to reopen is definitely building in liberal areas,” Taylor said. “Conservative areas seem to react more to the community and the parents … being in a small town, maybe they feel an obligation to be with them.”

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