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Essential Politics: California’s school reopening battle offers Newsom no easy options

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Gov. Gavin Newsom has compared the distribution of COVID-19 vaccine doses to boarding a commercial airliner. Everyone lines up for their section to be called, and while passengers may grumble about the slow process, they eventually get a seat.

But seven weeks into the effort to vaccinate millions of Californians, the choices seem to be getting harder, and here’s how the analogy is playing out: The flight was oversold, there’s no word when another plane will arrive, and the airline is still tinkering with the list of who’s in the boarding groups — while rumors circulate that passengers are boarding the flight at a nearby gate in a different order.

For one group of passengers — educators — the journey has a unique deadline, as the school year ever so gradually slips away. And the governor, whose job approval ratings have fallen and who faces the very real prospect of a special election this year to remove him from office, is under growing pressure to take action.

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But the seeds of this quandary were planted months ago.

Data for the decisions?

“We should’ve been planning for this back in June,” E. Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Assn., said in an interview last week with the nonprofit education news organization EdSource.

Most of the attention last summer was on whether state or local officials should be the ones to decide when K-12 students would return for in-person learning during the 2020-21 school year.

The Newsom administration imposed rules that initially kept most schools closed but left the decision to locals for what would happen when conditions improved, leading to neighboring communities with similar public health conditions choosing different paths. And more than 1,700 elementary schools in counties that didn’t meet coronavirus thresholds applied for special waivers to reopen, many of them private schools.

So how has it worked out? We don’t know.

The state has yet to make good on a promise last month to make public any comprehensive data about COVID-19 transmissions on school campuses that have stayed open through last fall and into the new year. Asked by a reporter last week about the calls for all educators to be vaccinated before more schools open, the governor surprisingly said there were “87 reported cases, positive cases in our schools” in January.

“That’s down from where we were in November [and] December, despite January being a record month in terms of community spread and positivity,” he said.

But late Friday, state public health officials told The Times that Newsom’s number represented only the first two weeks of January and they didn’t provide information as to whether these cases were widely spread out or in larger clusters. Nor did they provide any information on Newsom’s comment about November and December coronavirus conditions on school campuses.

That means that as negotiations over some kind of a statewide school coronavirus plan reach their peak — with demands by educators to be vaccinated taking center stage — there’s no real way to gauge where things stand.

Few easy choices on schools

Several of those who are involved in the discussions see only three options for Newsom, each of which carries considerable risk:

  • Give educators a guaranteed spot on the state’s vaccination priority list that’s stronger than the existing rules, even though it might potentially leapfrog over other vulnerable Californians.
  • Support legislation to require more classroom instruction as local virus conditions permit, with robust COVID-19 testing but without the strict requirement for vaccinations sought by unions representing teachers and school employees.
  • Split the difference with something akin to the status quo, hoping that vaccine supplies improve and leaving reopening decisions largely to local officials — even though the loose system may result in millions of kids remaining in off-campus learning for the rest of the academic year.

As the week begins, no one is showing signs of backing down.

Education labor unions released a six-page proposal last week that insists “all employees required to report in person have been provided the opportunity to be vaccinated before students return to campus.” The unions also restated their opposition to current Newsom administration guidance that school campuses can open once county COVID-19 conditions improve to no more than 25 cases per 100,000 residents. And they want to make reopening plans subject to collective bargaining with their local affiliates.

Groups representing school boards and administrators responded with a letter to Newsom and legislative leaders, insisting the unions’ demands will “stall access to in-person instruction for our most vulnerable students.”

The governor seemed to agree, sounding a note of frustration in remarks to the Assn. of California School Administrators on Jan. 31.

“If everybody has to be vaccinated we might as well just tell people the truth, there will be no in-person instruction in the state of California,” he said.

And he may choose to rely on the viewpoint expressed last week by the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who said that teacher vaccinations are “not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.”

Finding a way to win the support of teachers, administrators and parents will be difficult — especially on a timetable to get kids in classroom seats before April, at which point some say it will probably be too late to make a difference.

The recall effort and the polls

A pair of recent statewide polls suggest the governor is tackling these tough pandemic issues without a deep reservoir of public support. And those problems are what his most vocal critics are counting on in the homestretch of their effort to force a historic special election to remove him from office.

First, the polls. In a survey released last week by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, only 31% of voters surveyed said Newsom is doing a good or excellent job of handling the pandemic — an 18-percentage point drop since September. Even fewer — 22% — gave him high marks for his oversight of COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

A poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found half of likely voters approved of his overall job actions, a question asked differently than Berkeley’s survey but with results that seemed largely consistent. Here, too, he received very low marks for his work on vaccine efforts.

The Berkeley poll asked specifically about the effort to recall Newsom from office, finding only 45% of voters willing to say they’d cast a ballot to keep him in office.

The pandemic “is coloring people’s views on the recall,” said Mark DiCamillo, the poll’s director. “They’ve lost faith in him.”

Meanwhile, two Republicans have pledged to run in a recall election if it’s held. The groups promoting that effort claim to have collected about 1.4 million signatures. They need close to 1.5 million signatures to trigger an election — though it’s important to note that we don’t know how many of those they’ve collected are valid; the next signature report from state elections officials is expected on Feb. 16.

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Trump trial No. 2

Almost five weeks after an angry mob stormed the halls of Congress, intent on blocking the election of President Biden, senators are scheduled to convene the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump on Tuesday — bitterly divided over the propriety and legality of the proceedings.

At least one thing seems certain: the second impeachment trial against Trump, focused on a specific chain of events leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection, should be shorter than the one that ended in his acquittal last year.

As David Lauter writes, this week’s impeachment trial will shape Trump’s legacy but probably not resolve the sharp divide over how to view the former president.

National lightning round

— Biden says Trump’s “erratic behavior” should prevent him from receiving classified intelligence briefings.

— The Senate has approved a budget bill that’s a key step toward fast-track passage of President Biden’s $1.9-trillion coronavirus relief plan.

— Biden checked in on a Northern California woman who was laid off because of the pandemic during a conversation the White House said is part of an effort to help him engage more consistently with regular Americans.

— California’s plan to ban gas-powered cars in 15 years could become a model for the U.S. under Biden. But consumers aren’t clamoring for electric vehicles.

— Traveling 600 miles through the South to the Biden-Harris inauguration, Times staff writer Tyrone Beason chronicled his search for what the new president has called America’s soul.

Today’s essential California politics

— The U.S. Supreme Court has lifted California’s ban on indoor church services during the pandemic, ruling that Newsom’s strict orders appear to violate the Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion. And some churches across the state reopened their doors on Sunday.

— Republicans once more than held their own at the municipal level in California. No longer.

— George Skelton writes that one negative result of political polarization is closed minds that aren’t open to facts and independent thinking. The prime recent example is Republicans buying Trump’s lie that the election was “stolen.”

— Law enforcement officials are investigating escalating threats of death and violence against Newsom, his family and the wineries, shops and other businesses he’s founded.

— After a pair of scathing audits confirmed California’s troubled unemployment agency has been plagued by years of mismanagement, state lawmakers are demanding quick fixes to the unemployment benefits system while also announcing their own plans to speed up the payment of jobless benefits and reduce fraud.

Amy Wakeland, the first lady of Los Angeles, finds herself navigating shifting political fortunes during the homestretch of Mayor Eric Garcetti‘s time in office.

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