Yard duty monitors check the temperatures of students arriving at Encinal Elementary School in Atherton on Dec. 17. The Menlo Park City School District was among the few districts that kept schools open last fall during the coronavirus pandemic. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
California public school parents have become understandably exasperated with the months of squabbling between teacher unions, county officials, the state Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom over school reopenings.
But when it comes to public schools in our state, teacher unions have disproportionate political influence locally and statewide, and each school district has been left to negotiate a labor agreement for reopening on its own.
The result: Chaos. Students sitting at home, many falling further behind in their schoolwork. Parents trying to juggle their jobs, provided they can even work from home, while helping their kids with their lessons and Zoom connections.
Some California districts have managed to reopen, but they are disproportionately the wealthier ones. Once again, it’s people of color and low-income residents who are most impacted by the pandemic.
The damage to our children could last a generation. The sooner we can get them back to the classroom, the better. Even if that unfortunately means capitulating to the teacher unions, whose political demands are not fully rooted in science.
As of Friday, we were at an impasse. Newsom, who throughout the pandemic has been unable to deliver the COVID-19 testing and contact tracing needed to control outbreaks, had previously put forth a problematic plan that relies heavily on testing teachers and students to reopen schools. The state Legislative Analyst’s Office questioned its feasibility.
On the other extreme, the teacher unions have exercised their sway over state legislators, who on Thursday put forth a different reopening plan, Assembly Bill 86 and a Senate version with the same number, that requires testing of staff and pupils — and makes vaccines “available” to school site personnel.
It’s still not clear how the state would ramp up to accommodate such a large surge in testing. Nor is the bill clear on whether teachers would have to be fully vaccinated before schools could reopen, starting April 15. The bill also contains untenable provisions that essentially give unions veto power over required local school safety protocols. Nevertheless, the legislators have threatened to pass the plan as soon as Monday, forcing Newsom to choose between it or nothing.
It’s appalling that it’s come to this. The science is clear that schools can be safely reopened with proper precautions and without vaccinating every faculty member. The Centers for Disease Control reported in January that there had been hardly any transmission of the coronavirus in schools when masks and distancing were employed.
That’s largely because children, especially younger children, are much less likely than adults to become infected with the coronavirus, less likely to become ill and less likely to spread the virus to others.
Nevertheless, some teachers, especially those who are older or have medical vulnerabilities, are understandably reluctant to risk exposure. There should be a way to accommodate them. And we should be prepared to reverse course, as districts elsewhere in the country did in November and December, if there is another surge in cases.
But using a disproportionate share of our limited vaccine supply for the entire public school teacher population shouldn’t be necessary — especially when data shows that other populations, including some essential workers, face equal or greater risk.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, said this past week that teachers should “absolutely” be prioritized among essential workers in vaccination efforts but that vaccinating all teachers against COVID-19 before reopening schools is “non-workable.”
While Newsom’s slow actions on school reopenings have been frustrating, he is correct about the science. And he is right to criticize teacher unions for insisting on complete school faculty vaccination.
That said, at a certain point, it seems clear that, with the unions controlling the Legislature, politics will have to trump science if we are to have any hope of reopening public schools. It’s unfortunate that other people in need of vaccination will have to wait so all teachers can jump to the front of the line. But if that’s what it takes to get our kids back in school by April, that’s what we need to do.
We as a state can’t keep arguing over this. We need to act. The legislators’ plan would require that counties that have resisted letting teachers move up in the vaccine priority would be forced to capitulate. But resisting and standing on principle — even when it’s right — won’t get our kids back to school.
They have been sitting at home for nearly a year now. We need to get them safely back into the classroom.