From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s six million public school students have been used as pawns in political power struggles and abused by having their educations stunted.
Both mistreatments continue as, finally, in-person classes resume with the new and more virulent “delta” coronavirus variant sweeping through the state.
School closures have been a major factor in the recall campaign against Gov. Gavin Newsom. Parents angered by months-long school closures, even when public health officials advised that children were relatively unaffected by the disease, helped qualify the September 14 recall election.
School unions were an impediment, demanding safety conditions that were impossible to achieve. Newsom was unwilling to confront union leaders, who are important political allies, so schools remained shuttered as students struggled to keep up with classes via the internet.
Finally, clearly seeing prolonged closures as a political downer, Newsom championed reopening for the 2021-22 school year with a mask requirement for students. However, while imposing vaccination requirements on state employees and health workers, he sidestepped requiring inoculations for teachers and other school employees.
CA Mandates Vaccination or Weekly Testing for All School Staff
On August 6, during a school reopening event in San Bernardino, Newsom once again touted the masking requirement for kids. But while urging school employees to get vaccinated, he demurred on mandatory vaccinations, expressing confidence that student masks, improved classroom ventilation and other safety steps would be sufficient.
“We can take these masks off once and for all,” he said. “That way we can keep our kids back in-person without any stress or anxiety for the rest of the year.”
Newsom also expressed doubt that the state could compel vaccinations for teachers because it would be a working condition that would have to be negotiated, district by district, with their unions.
However, just six days later, with much hoopla, he announced that teachers and other school workers would be required to be vaccinated, bragging that California would be the first state to do so.
“We think this is the right thing to do, and we think this is a sustainable way to keep schools open,” Newsom said at a press conference at Carl B. Munck Elementary School in Oakland. “We think this will do exactly what it’s intended to do and that’s encourage people to get vaccinated.”
So what triggered the 180-degree change of policy?
Newsom Goes Back on His Word
Newsom, asked by reporters for an explanation, refused to answer and continued to tout the new regulation. What about his previous position on vaccination needing negotiations with unions? Again, there was no response, but school unions dutifully endorsed the vaccination order.
Events, it would seem, caught up with Newsom. With infections and hospitalizations still expanding, exempting teachers from vaccination orders imposed on other public workers became bad political optics.
Several major school districts imposed their own vaccination requirements and last Tuesday, one day before Newsom acted, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, endorsed teacher vaccinations.
“Yeah I’m going to upset some people on this, but I think we should,” Fauci told MSNBC. “This is very serious business. You would wish that people would see why it’s so important to get vaccinated.”
We don’t know how many parents will let their kids return to the classroom with the new COVID-19 surge. We do know that they have already lost too much precious instructional time and that poor and English-learner students, whose academic achievement was already lagging, have suffered the most.
Finally, Newsom’s pirouette on vaccinations shows that the kids are still pawns in the adults’ political games.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.