Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

Already-big differences on when to reopen schools became starker Wednesday when Gov. Gavin Newsom reiterated that campuses can open safely before vaccinating all teachers, while five unions representing California school employees set a new set of conditions that could make reopening less likely before the end of the school year.

The unions laid out their positions in a 7-page paper timed to influence districts contemplating a return to school as well as the Legislature. Legislative leaders are currently negotiating with Newsom over the terms for distributing $6.6 billion that the governor has proposed to encourage districts to reopen campuses this spring and to use this summer and next fall to compensate for learning lost during the pandemic.

The unions are California Teachers Association; California Federation of Teachers; California School Employees Association; Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Council 57 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Their reopening plan would require that the state offer vaccinations to school employees before they return for in-person instruction and make it a priority to vaccinate all employees in schools that have opened already.

It also would prohibit the state from ordering schools to reopen before Covid infection rates have dropped to the level with the lowest risk of transmission — the yellow tier — on the California Department of Public Health’s four-tier color-coded system for regulating commercial and school activities.

That’s three levels below the purple tier, the most restrictive tier designating widespread risk of virus transmission. Newsom had proposed to offer $2 billion in incentives for reopening elementary schools, starting this month, in counties with infection rates in the upper range of the purple tier, when there is a seven-day average of 25 or fewer new daily positive Covid tests per 100,000 people.

As of Feb. 2, 54 of California’s 58 counties were in the purple tier, and none were in yellow. Since the statewide average daily rate of new cases is 48 cases per 100,000 people, most of the state’s districts are nowhere near the threshold for reopening.

Under the current state health guidelines, K-6 schools can reopen in the purple tier (from 7 to 25 new positive cases per 100,000 people in a county) only if they comply with strict safety precautions and negotiate a reopening plan with employee unions. Middle schools and high schools can reopen in the red, or “substantial risk,” tier (4 to 7 new positive cases per 100,000 people in a county).

Under the union plan, districts should be permitted to reopen for all grades in the red tier and the “moderate risk” orange tier (1 to 3.9 new positive cases), but would not be required to do so.

Local school unions serving teachers and classified staff negotiate with district administrators the terms and working conditions of their contracts but they generally rely on their parent unions for advice and bargaining positions.

Contention over vaccinations

Vaccinations are the latest flashpoint in the debate over reopening campuses.

During a news conference Wednesday, Newsom said his view on vaccinations is “aligned” with the position of the Biden administration and the president’s newly appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control.

“We have many, many districts that have schools open, and they’ve been able to do it safely,” Newsom said.

At a White House briefing, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told reporters, “Vaccinations of teachers is not a prerequisite for safely reopening schools” as long an array of safety measures, including masking and proper ventilation, are in place. She said that the CDC is currently reviewing its guidance for schools.

Newsom’s position is not a change to his plan to reopen school campuses, although he was more explicit on Wednesday. He didn’t include a vaccinations requirement in his $2 billion Safe Schools for All incentive program, which he announced on Dec. 30. That plan is now tied up in negotiations with the Legislature but Newsom hadn’t revised the plan to add vaccinations to the other prerequisites, which include masks, social distancing and proper ventilation.

Newsom reiterated that vaccinating teachers remains a priority, while clarifying what that means. Teachers have joined emergency responders and health care employees, food production and agricultural workers as the only employee groups to be designated a priority. But Newsom has also expanded the age group that is prioritized from 75 and older to those 65 and older, leading to uncertainty as to where school staff fall in line relative to millions of residents in that age group. Shortages and uneven allotments of vaccines among counties have compounded challenges.

County health departments in some small counties, including Placer, Napa and Butte, have begun to vaccinate teachers, while larger counties have not yet authorized teacher vaccinations.

Last week, and again on Wednesday, Newsom used boarding an airplane as an analogy. He said those 75 and older and health care workers and first responders were the first class, the first to board, followed by those 65 and older, the business class, then teachers and other priority occupations in premium class.

But just as airlines don’t wait for all business class passengers to board before the next in line, counties should now be vaccinating teachers simultaneously, he said, and praised the health departments, like the city of Long Beach, that have conducted vaccination clinics for teachers. Dozens of other county offices of education and county departments of public health, such as Sacramento, are working out the logistics and staffing for efficiently vaccinating teachers and staff at one time at school sites and county facilities, but have no idea when their counties will get enough vaccines and give them the go-ahead.

Timing is critical, and uncertainty of supplies is working against school reopening — if, as the unions insist, vaccinations are necessary for employees returning to school. Current vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna require a double vaccination, one month apart. Full protection from Covid comes two weeks after the second shot for a total of six weeks from the time of the first shot. By that timeline, a district that administers the initial vaccine to its staff by March 1 wouldn’t open until mid-April. It’s too soon to predict whether counties would be in the orange or yellow tiers by that time.

By implying in their plan that vaccinations could be offered only to employees already on campuses or headed back to schools for in-person instruction, the unions headed off a potentially contentious issue — which schools and grades should get a priority for vaccinations. Those over 65, who comprise 75% of the deaths from Covid-19 in California, might be angered if they had to delay their shots as they wait for teachers in districts that are leaning toward not reopening until summer or fall.

The state’s conditions or mandates for reopening schools and the funding that will help districts pay for reopening could determine the timing as well. Many districts balked at Newsom’s proposed requirements, seconded by employee unions, for extensive Covid testing of students and teachers, and the requirement to send K-6 students back amid high community infection rates in most counties, starting Feb. 15. But the first deadline for districts to apply for the funding of $450 to $700 per student passed Monday with no legislative action, and Newsom said last week that he was open to negotiating all aspects of his plan.

He did not refer to the $2 billion incentives at the press conference Wednesday. Instead, he included it with the $4.6 billion he also is proposing for summer school, extended learning time, counseling, tutoring and other measures to deal with the impact of campus closures due to the pandemic. “We are working very, very closely with the Legislature on putting forward $6.6 billion in an early action package to address the issue of learning loss,” he said.

With him at the press conference was Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who, as chair of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, is participating in the negotiations.

“We know the governor wants the schools to open safely,” Skinner said. “Our schools want to open safely, and the Legislature wants to get schools opened safely. We’re just hammering out the details to do that. And I’m confident we’ll get there.”

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  1. Lynn Mitchell 9 months ago9 months ago

    As an essential worker in Orange County, who has returned to on-campus instruction in a hybrid classroom without a vaccination or Covid-19 testing in August of 2020, I am surprised that the LAUSD and other districts are still not willing to return our students to school. The CSEA union negotiated our terms to return. The district has just started to offer testing in January of 2021. At the same time, they have sent … Read More

    As an essential worker in Orange County, who has returned to on-campus instruction in a hybrid classroom without a vaccination or Covid-19 testing in August of 2020, I am surprised that the LAUSD and other districts are still not willing to return our students to school.

    The CSEA union negotiated our terms to return. The district has just started to offer testing in January of 2021. At the same time, they have sent out the information to register for a vaccine appointment. The SAUSD, IUSD and NMUSD have all opened. It is time for the other unions and districts to get on board to help our students and their families. The funding from the CARES Act needs to be used in a responsible manner to assist with the safe reopening of schools. Hopefully, the staff will receive heroes pay to compensate us for our willingness to work through the crisis. We are dedicated to our communities. May we come together to move our students forward with their education.

  2. Paige Chatman 9 months ago9 months ago

    Each school district should identify the elementary school teachers and staff and find out if they're ready to go back into the classroom: if they're over 65, if they've been vaccinated or even if maybe they've already had Covid and can return to the classroom then get an itemized list of what teachers need like plexiglass etc... and get the public health department to clear the school and present that list to the state and … Read More

    Each school district should identify the elementary school teachers and staff and find out if they’re ready to go back into the classroom: if they’re over 65, if they’ve been vaccinated or even if maybe they’ve already had Covid and can return to the classroom then get an itemized list of what teachers need like plexiglass etc… and get the public health department to clear the school and present that list to the state and get the money.

    I recently emailed my district – Pittsburg, California – to get a location of our safety plans and our public health clearance’s and I have not received any information back so I am concerned that these teachers and districts are taking advantage and unfortunately it’s going to widen the gap of who is leading the next generation. However, I will not forget when new charter schools are on the ballot and coming into the community.

    Each district should come up with the amount of staff that they need vaccinated but honestly I really just think that are taking advantage of the situation. It needs to come to an end. The parents need to get together like the other districts and organize and put up banners to say that we know that you can do better and you’re not. Also these legislators need to stop working nine-to-five and get and get this work done to get these bills passed. This is not the time for business as usual.

  3. SalULloyd 9 months ago9 months ago

    Doc Redfield said publicly last year that schools were among the safest places for children. The new CDC director Walensky concurs. Last summer biochemist Dr. Emmanuel Goldstein of Rutgers University described how surface transmission of Covid was exaggerated. NWEA demonstrated the devastating impact of learning loss during shutdowns.

    “Follow the Science”
    Except when it comes to anatomy, biology, ultrasound . . . oh, and school reopenings.

  4. CA Teacher CA Mom 9 months ago9 months ago

    If my union continues to use children as a bargaining tool I will be using the Janus decision to leave them, and will unenroll my children from public education along with many other parents so that the districts and union realize that they work for the parents. Based on data from the CDC, there is no evidence that shows significant spread from students to staff. Unfortunately, for a profession who likes making research based decisions … Read More

    If my union continues to use children as a bargaining tool I will be using the Janus decision to leave them, and will unenroll my children from public education along with many other parents so that the districts and union realize that they work for the parents.

    Based on data from the CDC, there is no evidence that shows significant spread from students to staff. Unfortunately, for a profession who likes making research based decisions with facts and data, the increase in mental health issues for children reported by the CDC is being ignored. Furthermore, healthy people under the age of 65 should not be using vaccines until the elderly and health compromised individuals have been vaccinated. If teachers are too afraid to come back they can take a leave of absence. The teachers who will come back will do so gladly.

    It takes ten minutes to create a homeschool at your home via the CA dept. of Ed. If your district won’t open, I recommend you drain them.

    My kid is essential, and I can essentially do the work without you.
    https://www3.cde.ca.gov/psa/Affidavit/SchoolInfo?fp=_removeSession

  5. Senator Keeley 9 months ago9 months ago

    Sen. Nancy Skinner is basically saying “Yeah, I don’t see any reason to rush this. I am safe.”

  6. SD Parent 9 months ago9 months ago

    Most parents will tell you that unless the teachers are planning to teach in person as soon as they are vaccinated, there is no point in putting teachers at the front of the line. There is also little point to providing additional funding unless it has real accountability with student outcomes. San Diego Unified used CARES Act funding for a contract with the Raben Group, lobbyists in Washington, D.C. The firm helped Superintendent … Read More

    Most parents will tell you that unless the teachers are planning to teach in person as soon as they are vaccinated, there is no point in putting teachers at the front of the line. There is also little point to providing additional funding unless it has real accountability with student outcomes.

    San Diego Unified used CARES Act funding for a contract with the Raben Group, lobbyists in Washington, D.C. The firm helped Superintendent Cindy Marten draft her letter to the Biden Team, which helped elevate her on the national stage and likely contributed to her being nominated for Deputy Secretary of Education. Meanwhile, less than 3% of SDUSD’s students have any in-person interaction with teachers or other certificated employees (e.g. speech pathologists, counselors, etc.)–by appointment, only–each week. The educators’ union keeps raising the bar for reopening schools for in-person instruction.

    First, it was PPE, desk dividers and distancing. Then it was air filtration and school-district COVID-19 testing of staff and students. Now it’s teacher and staff vaccines and demands about how reductions in class densities can’t be accomplished by AM/PM shifts, how they can’t teach in-person and online, etc. Every parent is worried that the next demand is mandatory vaccination for students.

    Huge numbers of parents feel that the district isn’t willing or able to negotiate for what their children need want their children out of the district, but they are stuck.

  7. Bob 9 months ago9 months ago

    I don’t want to get the vaccine, but I’m fine returning to school.

  8. Scott 9 months ago9 months ago

    Don’t tie LCFF money to reopening, but offer money to schools that choose to reopen.

  9. jim 9 months ago9 months ago

    Gav is feeling the recall heat.

    Replies

    • Tomm 9 months ago9 months ago

      Agree that Newsom is feeling the heat from the recall attempt. I'm wondering if the unions see that as an opportunity to force him to their side? They have the money to help him after all. If so, won't be popular with parents and will work against him. The flip side, of course, is that Newsom sides with parents to "force" teachers back into the classroom, will not get the union money. Quite a … Read More

      Agree that Newsom is feeling the heat from the recall attempt. I’m wondering if the unions see that as an opportunity to force him to their side? They have the money to help him after all. If so, won’t be popular with parents and will work against him. The flip side, of course, is that Newsom sides with parents to “force” teachers back into the classroom, will not get the union money.

      Quite a corner he is backed into. That’s what happens over 40 years of politicians allowing public sector unions to become so powerful.