Several dozen students protested school reopening plans last Thursday before a San Dieguito school board meeting. Image via video.
Several dozen students protested school reopening plans last Thursday before a San Dieguito school board meeting. Image via video.

Gov. Gavin Newsom best keep his back to the wall as proliferating critics unsheathe their knives. That includes parents litigating to unlock classrooms and die-hard Trumpians stirring a recall campaign.

But an unlikely foe draws the sharpest dagger: self-assured leaders of California’s teacher unions.

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Newsom has gently cajoled educators for months to carefully resume in-person schooling, aiming to relieve exhausted, increasingly jobless, parents. The governor’s most recent bid promises $2 billion to local educators who submit blueprints for reopening classrooms, ensuring steady COVID-19 testing and protective gear for kids and teachers alike. 

This hefty carrot comes atop Newsom’s 9% boost in per pupil spending, relative to his pre-pandemic budget, $4.4 billion for remedial summer classes, and $7.1 billion in federal stimulus dollars flowing to local school boards, detailed by the Legislature’s budget analyst.

But it’s not enough, claims E. Toby Boyd, head of the California Teachers Association, in a barbed letter to Newsom last month. Sure, infection rates are in decline. Yes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently urged educators to restart schools, provided vaccines spread steadily, not the virus.

Still, the union chief insists that money is the sticking point, urging even greater funding to attack “poverty, racial inequality … and the chronic underfunding of California public schools.” He avows that classrooms must remain shuttered until all teachers are vaccinated. Even then, “the full effect of the vaccine on infection and transmission is not yet clear,” Boyd claims. 

Truth is, America’s two main vaccines have shown 95% efficacy against the coronavirus. “Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools,” the new CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said at the White House this week.

Newsom’s clumsy dance steps haven’t sweetened his romance with labor. He drew the ire of service workers last month, after moving-up senior citizens in the vaccine queue, bumping back young teachers and front-line laborers, like janitors and airport skycaps. Their union’s political director, Sandra Diaz, said that Newsom is “putting us out to die.”

Friends like these can make life miserable for Democratic governors. Labor invested handsomely in Newsom during his 2018 gubernatorial bid. He took $2.7 million from service workers, and the state’s pair of teacher unions dropped another $1.7 million for Newsom’s campaign.

Yet now Newsom pays the price for showing courage on two fronts. First, he’s taking the science seriously. Last month’s CDC report came on the heels of research in New York City, detailing how infections rarely originate from inside schools, especially relative to contagion rates felt in adjacent neighborhoods. Many children and adults are safer when returning to school.

Based on this evidence and safety precautions, like daily temperature checks, New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, worked with labor leaders to reopen child care, then public schools. Nearly half the nation’s children have returned to classrooms at least part-time, often in hybrid mode where students work online in secure gyms or cafeterias. But not in city schools across California where teacher unions hold sway. 

Newsom’s read of the evidence is correct. “Accumulating data (show) that with face mask compliance, and distancing and cohorting of students (in shifts) … we can minimize the amount of transmission in schools,” said Margaret Honein, lead author of the CDC study.

In addition, union leaders appear disingenuous when telling Newsom to devise a “clear and coordinated” state plan, rather than sharing authority with county officials. Labor chieftains militantly protect decentralization when it comes to blocking a local school board’s attempt to reopen schools, even on a limited basis. 

Meanwhile, parents have reached a boiling point, trying to home-school their kids, while holding down a job. “I know I’m at the risk of sounding uncaring and harsh,” San Diego parent Brianne Russell said. But “teachers have the right not to be exposed, (and) I’m a grocery worker on the front lines of the pandemic.”

By one estimate, students from low-income families will require two to three years to recover their year of lost schooling. Children of color are less likely to engage in online classes, and their failure rates are skyrocketing in many schools.

We must work together to ensure that teachers face a minimal health risk when returning to school, capping classrooms at, say, 15 students and enforcing safe practices. But union insistence of zero risk for their members is not a standard imposed on nurses, pre-K teachers or grocery clerks.

Self-interested attacks on the governor — one leader who respects science and attempts decisive leadership — bring us no closer to balanced policy, finding a spirit of common cause.

Bruce Fuller is a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He wrote this column for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.