Credit: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/Polaris
Jordan Ribon, 9, left, arrives at her school with her father Tom Rincan and 4-year-old brother Dylan Rincan James H Cox Elementary School in Fountain Valley.

Seven urban California school districts, including the state’s four largest, have called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to adopt and pay for more stringent, uniform health and safety requirements they say should be in place before bringing students back to school during the pandemic.

“It will take collective action and additional funding to bring students, teachers and staff back to schools in the way that is as safe as possible and sustainable for the long-term,” they said in a Nov. 2 letter organized by Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner and signed by the superintendents of San Diego, Long Beach, Fresno, Santa Ana, Sacramento and Oakland unified school districts. Adopting their recommendations would mark a shift from local control toward more rigorous state control over school reopenings.

None of the districts plans to bring students back to regular classes before January. Of the seven, Los Angeles and Long Beach are in Los Angeles County, which is coded “purple,” the most restricted category on the state’s monitoring list. That indicates high infection rates, prohibiting the reopening of schools until data improve. The other districts are in counties where schools are permitted to reopen, although infection rates in some neighborhoods in Santa Ana, Oakland and Fresno are higher than the county averages.

Their call for a “Common Standard” of stricter requirements potentially would make it more difficult to bring students back. The letter comes as other districts, including Capistrano Unified, the state’s eighth-largest district, have reopened or have announced dates to resume in-person instruction without implementing some of the lengthy prerequisite conditions the urban districts are seeking the state to impose.

The most urgent need, said San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten, is expanded virus testing. State guidance from last summer calls for “surveillance” testing teachers and staff in order to identify potential asymptomatic Covid-19 carriers every other month. “We thought it was important to say clearly that this may not be sufficient,” Marten wrote in an email. “Students should also be tested. And testing may need to be more frequent.”

A three-page document spelling out proposed uniform standards calls for free testing for students and staff, and for family members who may have been exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. Testing should be available at multiple sites within a community, with a turnaround time of 24 to 48 hours for test results, the document says.

Last week, Newsom announced the opening of a $25 million state laboratory, under a partnership with PerkinElmer, a diagnostics company, that plans to process 150,000 tests by March. That, Newsom said, should help districts reopen schools, although he did not call for mandating more extensive school testing.

Newsom has provided districts with $5.3 billion in federal CARES Act funding, plus $620 million in state funding, which he has repeatedly said should be sufficient to reopen schools. And he has insisted that individual school districts should decide when to reopen, based on state and county health department guidance.

But Marten and the other superintendents argue that the CARES Act money is one-time funding, most of which has to be spent by Dec. 31, and districts need sustained funding to keep schools open. “No one is seriously arguing there were sufficient funds in the CARES Act or any other disbursement to cover a robust, statewide testing program,” she wrote.

Calls for Newsom to take a stronger role in reopening schools, particularly collecting and publishing data on school infections and more comprehensive testing protocols, have grown louder. Last week, at a legislative hearing, Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, told Dr. Erica Pan, acting public health officer for the California Department of Public Health, that uniform testing requirements would help school districts settle negotiations with teachers’ unions on reopening.

“If you don’t come out with testing protocols for our state, it puts our districts in a very tough position,” he said.

The superintendents are calling for the state to put in place a data collection system that would enable districts to publish a school “Covid report card” identifying a student cohort infected by the virus in a school. Districts currently decide how much information to share with parents and the community. The document also says the state should monitor compliance with testing and contact tracing programs.

In a presentation at the hearing, the Legislative Analyst’s Office also called for the state to track and report Covid-19 cases and to help schools respond to outbreaks and conduct contact tracing of family members and others potentially exposed to the virus.

The LAO acknowledged that expanded testing “could add significant costs” that districts had not expected to shoulder.

In an Oct. 15 letter to Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, the mayors of the state’s 13 largest cities expressed impatience with the pace of school reopenings and called for state officials to take a stronger hand.

“We recognize and acknowledge the serious health concerns of teachers, parents and staff members but are also extremely concerned about the effects of prolonged distance learning and lack of access to in-person classroom resources on our children,” the letter said.

The mayors observed, “We are seeing private and parochial schools open much more quickly, potentially increasing the disparities between well-resourced and under-resourced schools.”

They called on Newsom to direct more testing resources to schools and to establish uniform standards for prioritizing reopening for special education students, young students and students in the highest-poverty areas.

The California Teachers Association praised the seven superintendents’ letter in a statement on Monday. “We’ve been calling for testing educators/school employees and students, along with the necessary safety measures and protocols to be in place at all schools,” said CTA spokeswoman Claudia Briggs. “Glad to hear superintendents agree with us; we are in alignment.”

EdSource's trusted, in-depth reporting has never mattered more.

With the coronavirus affecting every aspect of California's education, demand for EdSource's reporting has increased tremendously.

We can meet this demand, with help from readers like you.

From now through December 31, NewsMatch will match your one-time gift or your new monthly donation for 12 months.

Your contribution ensures that EdSource’s content continues to be available for free – without a paywall or ads.

Make your donation today to DOUBLE your impact.

Share Article

Comments (10)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

We welcome your comments. All comments are moderated for civility, relevance and other considerations. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. JW 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Our statewide educational leadership on COVID-19 is a mess - there is no vision, conflicting guidelines, limited resources, and constant blaming of local leaders. Without the solid statewide guidance requested by these superintendents all that is happening is that communities who are willing to be more "risky" about their COVID response are able to open. We also have the color-coded reopening model which prevents schools from reopening when in the purple/widespread tier even when your … Read More

    Our statewide educational leadership on COVID-19 is a mess – there is no vision, conflicting guidelines, limited resources, and constant blaming of local leaders. Without the solid statewide guidance requested by these superintendents all that is happening is that communities who are willing to be more “risky” about their COVID response are able to open. We also have the color-coded reopening model which prevents schools from reopening when in the purple/widespread tier even when your county may have been in the red/substantial tier the week before. If your school was lucky enough to start the opening process during the red/substantial week you can continue reopening while everyone else is stopped. How is that even logical? Additionally, this guidance does not fit the most recent research and data on schools opening in other parts of the country and in other countries. We can open and stay open with the resources requested by these superintendents.

    Unions are getting a lot of blame for delaying reopening, but many schools also have families and students who are asking for delays because they don’t feel safe returning because they see members of their community not following the guidelines. Simply saying, “well they can sign up for distance learning/independent study” is not enough, especially when its 50-60% of a school. That sends the message that families/students can choose to “be safe” but teachers cannot. We need a solid, statewide plan for a safe reopening and transitioning all students and staff back to on-campus learning. This requires on-going surveillance testing for students and staff, as well as legal guidelines that reflect the most recent science. These resources may also even allow us to have everyone on campus 5 days per week. Our public health officials and educators are busting their rears trying to reopen safely, but we desperately need solid, consistent leadership and COVID-19 testing resources.

  2. Lyndon 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Grateful to EdSource for their excellent coverage of these issues. It seems obvious that these superintendents, under the realm of teacher unions and union-controlled school boards, are not acting in the best interest of our students. Our California students, particularly those from low-income families and dual-working parent families, are suffering tremendously in the distance learning environment. It is not fair to continue to punish this generation. I hope we look to how Europe is placing a … Read More

    Grateful to EdSource for their excellent coverage of these issues.

    It seems obvious that these superintendents, under the realm of teacher unions and union-controlled school boards, are not acting in the best interest of our students. Our California students, particularly those from low-income families and dual-working parent families, are suffering tremendously in the distance learning environment. It is not fair to continue to punish this generation.

    I hope we look to how Europe is placing a priority on “schools as essential” during this crisis. Both of the following quotes resonate:

    Norway: “The view in Norway is that children and youth should have high priority to have as normal a life as possible, because this disease is going to last,” she said. “They have the lowest burden of the disease, so they shouldn’t have the highest burden of measures.”

    Belgium: “The school environment, in our perception, is still quite a controlled environment,” he said. “We think it’s better to have schools open than to send kids home, have them meet on the street and give them more opportunities to spread the virus.”

    Source: Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/coronavirus-outbreaks-schools-europe/2020/09/27/0dd19bf6-ff48-11ea-b0e4-350e4e60cc91_story.html

  3. Lisa 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Entitled (ie, affluent) minded parents want things to be normal. If some teachers have to die and some older relatives of other people have to die, that’s just the way it goes. The pressure on superintendents and school boards from these kind of parents must be immense. They need someone to take the heat off. Do you have the courage to help them, Governor Gavin?

    Replies

    • J 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

      I dunno about this. I teach in a very not-affluent area. Quite a few number of parents want their kids back in school because they consider the school to be a safe place for them as they go to work. It's not as cynical as "they just need daycare," but they want their kids safe and supervised as they go to work. "Rich people want us to die" is just a different kind of … Read More

      I dunno about this. I teach in a very not-affluent area. Quite a few number of parents want their kids back in school because they consider the school to be a safe place for them as they go to work. It’s not as cynical as “they just need daycare,” but they want their kids safe and supervised as they go to work.

      “Rich people want us to die” is just a different kind of cynicism. And collectively, not-so-affluent individuals can exert an influence of their own.

    • Lyndon 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

      I respectfully disagree. Affluent parents are able to provide adequate tech access for distance learning, hire tutors, and take time to help students navigate distance learning. It is the low-income families where caregivers need to go to their essential jobs and reluctantly leave their children alone at home to fend for themselves all day. Also affluent parents can send their children to private schools, which are providing in-person learning. It is the students from low-income … Read More

      I respectfully disagree. Affluent parents are able to provide adequate tech access for distance learning, hire tutors, and take time to help students navigate distance learning. It is the low-income families where caregivers need to go to their essential jobs and reluctantly leave their children alone at home to fend for themselves all day. Also affluent parents can send their children to private schools, which are providing in-person learning. It is the students from low-income families who are suffering from learning loss, nutritional deprivation, boredom, and neglect due to the schools being closed. Blindly following the pressure from the very strong teachers union is the opposite of courageous.

      So yes, I have hope that our governor will have courage, but the courage to advocate for our state’s invisible low-income students who deserve the right to a proper education.

  4. SD Parent 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    With the possible exception of Sacramento Unified, all of the school districts that are asking for more stringent standards for reopening schools have strong teachers unions that belong to California Alliance for Community Schools, a coalition that openly states to their members that their unions should become more involved in political agendas, including setting policies and recruiting and supporting candidates. Coincidence?

    Replies

    • Eric Vargas 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

      That’s right! This is not about our children’s safety. It’s about control.

  5. Sarah 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    I sincerely wish Orange County, particularly the beach city districts, were more aligned with these intelligent, educated and science guided superintendents. Instead they are not testing anyone as they push teachers and students back to the classroom this week.

    Replies

    • Mary 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

      Science??? Whose science, exactly?

      Open your eyes. Children need to be in school, with other children. Learning and playing together. They do not need to be locked up in front of screens or in boxes, wearing masks, being fed socialist propaganda about hating themselves and their country!

  6. Jim 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Newsom ‘s personal standard is “send your kids to private school where they would already be back in class”. We will see what he deigns suitable for the peons.