Disagreements between California’s Democratic-controlled Legislature and its Democratic governor over a plan to reopen schools came to a head Thursday as lawmakers introduced a bill they say would safely bring students back to campus this spring.
Senate Bill 86 would require California’s school districts to offer some sort of in-person instruction to students in kindergarten through sixth grade by April 15 if case rates in their county fall below 7 positive cases per 100,000 residents, known as the red tier.
Some parts of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s original plan remain, such as allocating $2 billion for reopening costs — if districts meet the reopening deadline — and $4.6 billion to address students’ learning loss. The new proposal still calls for negotiated agreements from local unions.
But it differs from Newsom’s position in a key way: Lawmakers said their plan mandates that local public health departments offer vaccines to school employees before they return to work in person, which Newsom has publicly said the state lacks the supply for and would delay reopening campuses.
“If the governor wants this (teacher vaccinations) to be a priority, it will be a priority,” said Patrick O’Donnell, chair of the Assembly Education Committee.
Key Assembly members said they planned to advance their proposal on Monday as a piece of the state budget, though their bill may be more of a negotiating tactic than a proposal that will be signed into law. It would be highly unusual for Democratic lawmakers to send Newsom a major budget item that they hadn’t previously agreed on. Negotiations — which Newsom described earlier this week as “stubborn” — are expected to continue in the coming days.
“This is a major step, but it is not cause for taking a victory lap,” Speaker Anthony Rendon said in a statement. “This legislation moves us closer to our common goal of getting each student safely into an optimal learning situation.”
Teacher vaccinations remain the central point of contention in negotiations between the governor, Legislature and labor unions.
“If the governor wants this (teacher vaccinations) to be a priority, it will be a priority.”
— Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, chair of the Education Committee
Newsom, public-health experts and guidance have said that schools can safely reopen without requiring teachers to be vaccinated so long as they implement strict measures such as widespread masking and distancing. Requiring all teachers to be vaccinated before reopening campuses would likely mean that most public schools would remain closed this spring, Newsom has said.
Teachers unions have listed vaccinations as part of their demands before physically reopening schools and agreements in some local districts that have yet to reopen, such as San Francisco, hinge on vaccinations. The new proposal by Democratic Assemblymembers Phil Ting, Patrick O’Donnell and Kevin McCarty more aligns with unions than Newsom’s stance.
Claudia Briggs, spokesperson for the California Teachers Association, said in an email Thursday that the union was reviewing the bill’s details.
“We appreciate the legislative proposal in prioritizing safety in opening schools for in-person instruction,” Briggs said. “The April 1 deadline for school districts to submit safety plans gives administrators time to put together their plans to ensure required safety measures are in place.”
In a Thursday call with reporters, legislators characterized their plan as realistic, arguing the state has the vaccine supply to make it happen. They put the onus on the governor, saying he has the power now to further prioritize educators, if he wants to.
“We think this is a plan that is implementable, that’s workable,” Ting said. “We think that the dates are achievable.”
The vaccine reality so far has been muddy.
Newsom last month reshuffled the state’s prioritization list to include teachers in the broad tier 1B Phase 1 group that also includes first responders, farm workers and Californians aged 65 and older. A chaotic rollout and dueling priority groups have translated to a wide variance in how quickly local public health departments have been able to give vaccines to teachers.
The city of Long Beach, which operates its own public-health department, will have offered all of its K-5 teachers the vaccine once the school district begins in-person instruction for elementary students March 29, according to Mayor Robert Garcia. Other counties, such as Santa Clara and Fresno, either have not said when they’ll offer vaccinations to teachers or said they wouldn’t be able to vaccinate teachers until April because of scarcity.
Newsom voiced optimism last week that a deal with the Legislature was imminent, but walked back hopes for a deal Tuesday when he said negotiations remained “stubborn.” The governor has said repeatedly that the state does not have the supply to offer all teachers vaccinations before reopening campuses.
Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The legislative plan pushes the mile markers for full-scale elementary campus reopenings back two months — to April 15 — compared with Newsom’s initial plan. That would leave roughly six or so weeks of in-person instruction for California’s public schools, most of which end their school year in late May or early June.
Newsom had initially pushed for a Feb. 15 target date under a proposal that stalled after widespread criticism from superintendents, teachers unions and state lawmakers.
The governor had told superintendents that the date was intended to help prod districts toward reopening, and state officials expressed concerns last month of a limited window for reopening as the calendar days tick away.
Most of the state is experiencing declining coronavirus case rates after a brutal winter and are allowed by the state to reopen elementary schools, which the legislators said helped make their case for a feasible April 15 return.
Public pressure on state leaders to act has increased in recent weeks as most of the state’s 6.1 million students remain learning from home. Though many smaller districts in rural and inland parts of the state have physically reopened — some as early as August — most of California’s public-school students remain in online learning, and the state as a whole remains behind the rest of the country in offering in-person instruction.
Laurel Rosenhall contributed to this story. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.