Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

Four years of the Trump presidency and the calamity of Covid-19 is driving a political realignment across the United States, and the Golden State is changing too.

This shift, however, doesn’t pit Democrats against Republicans. It’s the grassroots pressure from parents demanding more leadership to open schools that’s forcing side-taking between students and the state’s powerful teacher’s unions.

While Democratic governors unite behind a call for open schools and rising stars like Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimundo boosted their political profile by keeping schools open, Governor Newsom’s late-coming plan to open schools led with a $2 billion package of incentives saying that teachers’ “love of teaching” would send them back into the classroom.

To beleaguered and exhausted parents who have watched their children’s love for learning whither after ten months of Zoom school, this all-carrot-and-no-stick stance by Newsom may appear to be politically tone-deaf.

Pre-pandemic, California’s parents were too often lumped into those who support charter schools (anti-union) or public schools (pro-union). The California Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Service Employees International Union, which represents school staff, are by far the most powerful public employee force in Democratic politics.

Unless you’re the “charter candidate” — earning and keeping labor support is fundamental to raising the money and support you need to run a competitive campaign here in the most expensive state in the nation to run for public office. But Covid has changed that dynamic, driving a torrent of new Democratic, labor-supporting, public school parents into the politics of opening schools. Forced into an uncomfortable conflict with their local union, parents are demanding Democrats stand with them.

The peril of not recognizing these new fault lines is real. Newsom is facing a recall effort. It’s reasonable to ask — and impossible to know — how many enraged parents will sign the recall petition because Newsom is the highest-profile leader they can hold accountable for their child not being in school.

And Newsom isn’t alone. In at least one district (San Ramon Valley in the East Bay) School board members are facing recall elections for decisions to bring back distance learning. Parents’ anger is stoked weekly as superintendents share school reopening check lists with health measures required by their state and counties met, while “finalize labor agreements” remain unchecked.

Pressures to open schools are coming from different quarters. A distinguished educator has called for temporarily suspending local collective bargaining and instead having the state negotiate a single statewide contract with the CTA. Health professionals, pediatricians and equity activists are demanding an urgent end to prolonged lock outs citing the devastating impact on kids.

News articles about a surge of teen suicides blamed on closed schools makes it increasingly difficult for any elected official to stand on the sidelines. The conventional bromides of “what’s best for teachers is best for students” don’t hold in these unconventional times.

This week’s Centers for Disease Control report showing schools can open safely with basic PPE precautions and Newsom’s lifting of stay-at-home orders adds fresh pressure to open schools across the state’s nearly 1000 districts

Parents banned together under the banner of OpenSchoolsCA are rallying their communities with actions like sit-ins at Kamala Harris’ Berkeley elementary school to draw attention to the reopening issue, webinars with UCSF Covid experts and coordinated support for legislation like AB10, to commit to a timeline for opening schools.

How local and state elected leaders navigate school reopening will no doubt shape their political fortunes come election day.

Californians love their teachers and value labor, but forced to choose, parents will vote for the health and wellbeing of their children first, and for many, that means a safe and swift return to live in-person instruction as soon as possible.

•••

Pat Reilly is a political strategist, entrepreneur and the parent of two students in Berkeley Unified School District.  

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent viewpoints from EdSource’s broad audience. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Jamie Smith 6 months ago6 months ago

    In my opinion, they should have a tier and safety plan in place as well as priority for teachers and students to be vaccinated. This should be optional based on the families’ ability and safety concerns to partake in the reopening of schools. This is affecting lower income students greatly as a lot of these kids use school to eat two meals a day and obtain the in-person structured learning.

  2. Parent and Teacher 6 months ago6 months ago

    Such a divisive article and divisive comments. I’m an educator, I’m there. We have far more cases than are reported. My dear friend caught Covid from one of her kindergarten students, in a hybrid class of 9, all masked, after spending 2.5 hours a day with them. She and her entire family were horribly sick and impacted by Covid. Not important though, yes? Because she’s just a teacher. My 18 year old is going off … Read More

    Such a divisive article and divisive comments. I’m an educator, I’m there. We have far more cases than are reported. My dear friend caught Covid from one of her kindergarten students, in a hybrid class of 9, all masked, after spending 2.5 hours a day with them. She and her entire family were horribly sick and impacted by Covid.

    Not important though, yes? Because she’s just a teacher. My 18 year old is going off to college next year if she is vaccinated. She will not be returning to the school building this year unless vaccinated… because she won’t be a guinea pig under my watch. She wants to be a teacher and would be a great one. I’ve suggested she go into a different field: one where she’ll be paid a living wage and will be given a tiny bit of respect. I’ve asked her to choose a career where the main constituents will care a tiny bit if she dies. I’ve begged her not to go into education. What a horrible tragedy for those of us that followed our hearts and chose this field only to be treated like 3rd class citizens whose lives mean nothing to the parents of the children we devote our lives to.

  3. jacqueline wendt 6 months ago6 months ago

    Thank you for your honest and well written article!!!

  4. Jonathan Raymond 6 months ago6 months ago

    So well said and many great comments. This all boils down to leadership and in this case the lack thereof. What if we put children at the center and started asking questions about what is best for them and their families? Rather then falling back on fear-based arguments we used science, data, and facts? How about instead of saying "no," we start with "let's figure out how to make this … Read More

    So well said and many great comments. This all boils down to leadership and in this case the lack thereof. What if we put children at the center and started asking questions about what is best for them and their families? Rather then falling back on fear-based arguments we used science, data, and facts? How about instead of saying “no,” we start with “let’s figure out how to make this work,” and with a sense of urgency?!

    There are enough examples in both public and private school settings on how to bring children back into schools and classrooms safely. Isn’t the future health and welfare of our children worth doing everything we can to make this happen?

  5. BHS Parent 6 months ago6 months ago

    Spot-on story. Schools closures are a public health crisis, whose clear and present dangers outweigh the reopening risks of Covid. Our elected officials and union leaders need to do a quick, back of the envelope calculation as to how many lifelong supporters will stay with them at the cost of harming their own children. Having not been themselves relegated to Zoom school, they can presumably do the math.

  6. JJ 6 months ago6 months ago

    Excellent summary of the current situation. The on-going school closure is a complete travesty and a major public health crisis of its own. There is no excuse, almost one year in, for allowing kids to suffer for political gain. We need real leadership. Now.

  7. EC 6 months ago6 months ago

    This is spot-on, there will be political fallout from this that I can only hope our representatives are thinking hard about. I am from a pro-union family, but if I am forced I will cross a picket line to allow my kids the education in-person they are “guaranteed” by the constitution – I really hope it doesn’t come to that. We need a Transformational Leader to pull us through this – where are they?

  8. Leda 6 months ago6 months ago

    Well said, all of this. Like most progressives, I’m pro-union because I believe workers should not be being abused by their employers. But here we have the union holding us all hostage with demands that are unreasonable and not based on science. And the impact on kids should have us all losing sleep. That our elected officials haven’t stepped way up to deal with this demonstrates the worst of democratic politics, and an ongoing … Read More

    Well said, all of this. Like most progressives, I’m pro-union because I believe workers should not be being abused by their employers. But here we have the union holding us all hostage with demands that are unreasonable and not based on science. And the impact on kids should have us all losing sleep. That our elected officials haven’t stepped way up to deal with this demonstrates the worst of democratic politics, and an ongoing disregard for the well being of children.

    We’ve got suicidal kids who have been socially isolated for almost a year. How can that possibly be ok for anyone with the power to mitigate that? This educational crisis should be the #1 priority in this state.

  9. WCCUSD Parent 6 months ago6 months ago

    This piece raises so many important points. Parents hate the idea of being pitted against teachers - we all deeply appreciate how hard our teachers are working, and know there's a huge lack of trust and faith in the district making schools safe. That's definitely the case here in West Contra Costa. That's why we desperately need state leadership to step in and be more directive about when reopening should happen when case-count thresholds … Read More

    This piece raises so many important points. Parents hate the idea of being pitted against teachers – we all deeply appreciate how hard our teachers are working, and know there’s a huge lack of trust and faith in the district making schools safe. That’s definitely the case here in West Contra Costa. That’s why we desperately need state leadership to step in and be more directive about when reopening should happen when case-count thresholds are met, about guidelines on reopening safety, and provide the funds needed to make it happen.

    We can do this if Sacramento leaders muster the political will.

  10. Sarah 6 months ago6 months ago

    Public education has been stolen from millions of kids in California. It definitely feels like Newsom has sold our kids for a few million in donations from the teachers' unions, in support of his re-election campaign. How did we get to a point where we have to beg for the return of in-person public education, when public health offices at every level of government have clearly outlined it can be safe? I will absolutely remember … Read More

    Public education has been stolen from millions of kids in California. It definitely feels like Newsom has sold our kids for a few million in donations from the teachers’ unions, in support of his re-election campaign. How did we get to a point where we have to beg for the return of in-person public education, when public health offices at every level of government have clearly outlined it can be safe? I will absolutely remember every politician’s failure to open schools the next time I’m at the ballot box.

  11. LRV 6 months ago6 months ago

    This is spot on in so many ways. I live in Berkeley and am absolutely intending to sign the recall Newsom petition if the current school situation is not remedied by the end of February. Every parent I know wants to work with the teacher’s unions to ensure a safe reopening, but the framework for discussion has to be based in reality and science. Schools everyone are finding ways to reopen safely, so it’s increasingly … Read More

    This is spot on in so many ways. I live in Berkeley and am absolutely intending to sign the recall Newsom petition if the current school situation is not remedied by the end of February. Every parent I know wants to work with the teacher’s unions to ensure a safe reopening, but the framework for discussion has to be based in reality and science.

    Schools everyone are finding ways to reopen safely, so it’s increasingly clear that what is missing in areas where schools remain closed is leadership and the will to figure out how to get it done. Ensuring a meaningful education for our children should be at the top of the governor’s priority list. Newsom (and others in leadership positions) should be taking immediate action to figure out what is needed to reopen schools and making sure it is done ASAP. This leadership vacuum is why the situation has devolved to the point that parents and teacher’s unions feel pitted against each other when they should be collaborating.

  12. LM 6 months ago6 months ago

    I worry that teachers unions have lost the forest for the the trees on all of this. By digging in their heels and resisting scientific data and the advice of epidemiologists, they are hurting the very profession they are supposed to be championing. I'm a former teacher, but I would be disgusted to have a union that openly disregards science speak on my behalf. And as a parent who has watched her young children struggle … Read More

    I worry that teachers unions have lost the forest for the the trees on all of this. By digging in their heels and resisting scientific data and the advice of epidemiologists, they are hurting the very profession they are supposed to be championing. I’m a former teacher, but I would be disgusted to have a union that openly disregards science speak on my behalf. And as a parent who has watched her young children struggle endlessly with distance learning over the last year, I wonder now if teachers unions care about students at all.

  13. Janene Whitney 6 months ago6 months ago

    The press is very powerful here. They drive public opinion, yet most articles leave out the specifics regarding why teachers still think schools are unsafe. They just write that there is controversy. Will you please publish the exact situations in schools that teachers know are unsafe and risk their lives? Will you publish which school require testing for their kids to return before they are sent home with symptoms, therefore already spreading the germs? … Read More

    The press is very powerful here. They drive public opinion, yet most articles leave out the specifics regarding why teachers still think schools are unsafe. They just write that there is controversy. Will you please publish the exact situations in schools that teachers know are unsafe and risk their lives? Will you publish which school require testing for their kids to return before they are sent home with symptoms, therefore already spreading the germs?

    I am talking about a list of ways that districts do not provide a fully safe environment even though they claim to do so. The public and government have motives to keeps schools open, but without the public knowing the actual unsafe practices or unmet requirements around the country, as your headline says, it is all political and no reality.