On Sept. 14, 2021, California will hold a recall election which will determine whether or not Governor Gavin Newsom will be removed from office before his term is up. One of the key issues that supporters of the recall have cited was Newsom’s decision to keep public schools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and his cautiousness in reopening public schools in 2021.
California state assemblymember Kevin Kiley, who is Republican, accused Newsom of capitulating to teacher’s unions: “He’s just saying whatever is necessary to cater to the agenda of the teachers unions who want the outcome of schools being closed,” said Kiley.
Yet public health data suggests that Newsom was rightly cautious in keeping public schools closed. And with the surge of the Delta variant of COVID-19, caution was also warranted in slowly reopening schools.
On March 4, 2020, the state of California under Newsom declared a State of Emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as cases and hospitalizations in the state were rapidly growing.
Shortly thereafter, state order N-26-20 ensured that California schools would retain access to state funding if they chose to close in response to the pandemic. State order N-26-20 ensured that school staff would be paid, meal programs would continue, and that any local statutes restricting distance learning programs for school age children would be rescinded.
At this point, schools retained the choice on whether or not to close in response to the pandemic. This changed shortly as cases and hospitalizations continued to rise and state health officials projected that as many as 56% of California’s population, over 25 million people, could get infected with COVID-19. While only a small percentage of COVID-19 infections lead to hospitalization, with 8,100 ICU beds in the entire state, the state’s healthcare system was at risk of being overwhelmed.
The temporary shelter In place order, N-33-20 (issued by Newsom and California secretary of health and human services Mark Ghaly) placed heavy restrictions on California residents to slow the pandemic. This order did not include schools in its list of essential services, so they were closed as well, with children transitioning to remote learning, shutting down in-person learning for the remainder of the school year.
In August 2020, as case rates were once again declining, Newsom unveiled the Blueprint for a Safer Economy, which introduced a tiered system for reopening. Each county in the state fell into one of four colored tiers based on the prevalence of COVID-19 infections in each county: Purple (Widespread), Red (Substantial), Orange (Moderate) and Yellow (Minimal)—based on how prevalent COVID-19 is in each county and the extent of community spread.
Schools were not allowed to reopen for in-person learning in Purple counties, so most school-aged children in California started their 2020-2021 school year with distance learning. As younger children were considered most impacted by the shift to distance learning, elementary schools in the Purple tier with small groups could apply for a waiver from the restrictions on in-person learning—1,700 schools applied for this waiver, with the vast majority of requests being granted.
Cases continued to rise in California, with a peak of infections and deaths in early January 2021. However, as the first vaccines for COVID-19 received Emergency Use Authorization in December 2020, California’s legislators and Newsom announced the Safe Schools for All plan.
This plan included $6.6 billion in funding to help schools restart in-person learning. Notably, $2 billion of this money was an incentive to reopen by May 15, 2021. This funding included priority access to vaccines for educators, additional personal protective equipment (PPE), testing, and contact tracing for schools.
California’s teachers unions and many parents were still concerned with this plan and asked for more restrictions and to wait for vaccination rates to increase for teachers. By April 14, 2021 all school employees in California who wanted a vaccine had been offered one, and 9,000 out of 11,000 schools in California had reopened for some form of in-person learning.
Newsom discontinued the stay-at-home order in California on June 15, 2021, as case rates and infections were dropping to the lowest levels seen since the start of the pandemic. By fall 2021, 97% of schools in California have reopened for in-person learning.
In August 2021, Newsom also announced a $123.9 billion budget for California’s public schools, aimed at improving the quality of education and breadth of services for all of California’s public schoolchildren. The reopening of California schools has largely progressed as planned. New “modified quarantine” rules enacted by the state seek to balance the need to keep schools open with the reality that some students will contract COVID-19. California has also enacted a statewide mandate for mask wearing in schools.
Despite having the largest public school system, as of September 2, 2021, California has not seen instances of school districts closing or the deaths of teachers from COVID-19 this school year, unlike Texas and Florida.
The COVID-19 pandemic was unprecedented. While schools did close to prevent COVID-19 infections from spreading, Newsom and California’s legislators worked to try to open schools as quickly as possible, and provided the financial support and guidance to help balance the need for public safety with the need to educate children in classrooms.