Editorial: Newsom finally rings the school bell

A person points thermometer device toward a child's head.
Campus aide Rebeca Garcia checks the temperature of students as they enter school on the reopening of Madison Elementary School on April 15 in South Gate.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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It’s a little late in the game, but Gov. Gavin Newsom is finally getting tough about reopening schools. Or tougher, anyway.

After months of saying that schools needed to reopen but failing to mandate it, Newsom proposes in his new budget to make it uncomfortable at least for school districts that don’t bring students back to campus for full-time instruction. Schools would no longer receive funding from the state for students being instructed remotely or participating in “Zoom in a room” — the kind of education middle and high school students have been getting in Los Angeles schools, where the students sit in a classroom but receive remote instruction from a teacher who’s in another classroom.

They would, however, receive money to upgrade their air filtration systems to make it yet safer for students and teachers to be in the classroom — though with coronavirus infection rates low and falling, it’s already quite safe and has been for a while.

Parents who still feel it would be unsafe for their kids to be in school would be able to enroll them in the traditional independent study programs, which up to now were used largely for students who needed flexible schedules (child actors, for instance). Newsom aims to beef these up and require more instructor-student interaction, which would be welcome.


But the independent study programs are also where the proposal is too weak. Newsom isn’t setting limits on the number of students who can attend these programs, which could become difficult and expensive for schools to carry out. Worse, they might allow parents to become dependent on at-home instruction so that their children never return to the classroom. That might work best for some kids and their families, but it is not an optimal learning or social environment for most students.

Still, Newsom’s budget means that school districts statewide will be planning full-time, in-person school for the new school year. For most of them, this will be the first time that students have been given that option in a year and a half. A return to school as usual will be more attractive to parents, many of whom saw little educational value in the two-day-a-week classrooms or Zoom-in-a-room efforts in many districts this year. It will enable them to set up regular child care again and bring schedules and stability back to their children’s lives.

Barring dangerous coronavirus variants or future surges in infections, the state will eventually need to require parents to send their kids back to school, but Newsom was wise to give them some leeway. Many have been through traumatic experiences with the pandemic in communities hit with high infection rates. Their fear is understandable, even if the science tells us that we are considerably safer now.

The best things schools can do for these families is teach well and operate safely so that they too feel the pull back to campus.