Many California schools slow to reopen despite financial incentives, medical data supporting return to classrooms
By Sarah Downey | Apr 12, 2021
With the end of the school year roughly two months away, questions persist about how many schools will be returning to in-person instruction absent a specific mandate to do so.
Even as vaccine distribution has helped lead to declining COVID-19 case numbers and CDC guidance has not changed regarding the low likelihood of transmission in school settings, Gov. Gavin Newsom has made financial incentives a key component of returning children to classrooms. Despite the scientific evidence, California regular public schools are failing to reopen fully, Lance Izumi, senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute, told the Northern California Record by email.
“For example, the San Francisco Unified School District says that it now plans to offer in-person classes for students up to only the second grade by April 12 and then only up to fifth grade students by the end of April,” Izumi said. “The San Francisco district has offered no plans for in-person instruction to sixth-grade and older students.”
San Francisco Unified has received $92 million to help with reopening, according to the latest state data available.
Izumi said many private and charter schools he’s visited have been open since last fall, and the vast majority of kindergarten through 12th grade students are learning in person.
“John Adams Academy charter school, which has three campuses in the Sacramento area, has been open to five-day-a-week in-person instruction since fall,” Izumi said. “The vast majority of students have opted for in-person learning. Students are placed in a cohort and if anyone is exposed to COVID then the cohort is quarantined. The school also enforces mask wearing, social distancing, and one-way corridors.”
None of the schools have had a single confirmed case of in-school transmission of the coronavirus.
“Demonstrating that proper, easily implemented protocols can keep students, including those in middle and high-school grades, and adult staff safe,” Izumi said.
The state’s financial incentives for reopening are designed to provide school systems with enough resources to implement COVID-19 safety measures.
“Even though Governor Newsom and the State Legislature approved a deal to create a fund to incentivize schools to reopen, the legislation, AB 86, does not actually require schools to reopen,” Izumi said. “With the teachers’ unions having a potential veto over school reopening, it is important to note that key teachers’ unions in California have reacted negatively to AB 86.”
Calmatters noted that AB 86 set April 1 as target date for reopening.
The Los Angeles Unified School District plans to begin reopening in stages on April 13, NBC Los Angeles reported.
Izumi noted that President Biden’s plan to funnel $130 billion into schools also fails to offer families added learning alternatives.
“Instead, the proposal includes large pots of money to pay for current school staff and to hire more, with smaller amounts for things such as personal protective equipment and digital equipment,” Izumi said.
It’s difficult to estimate the toll of prolonged closures on students who have been away from classrooms and other school routines for more than a year.
“Governor Newsom realizes that keeping schools closed has resulted in massive learning losses for children,” Izumi said. “When the governor released his proposed budget in January 2021, he included $4.6 billion to address student-learning losses. But even before the pandemic, less than a third of the state’s eighth graders scored at the proficient level on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress math and reading tests.”
A public school system that was so ineffective prior to the pandemic cannot be relied upon to fill-in student learning losses caused by the COVID-19 school shutdowns, Izumi said.
“Sadly, it seems more likely than ever that poor policy decisions by Governor Newsom and others to keep the schools closed for so long may have permanently derailed the learning for a great many students in California,” Izumi said.
Even as health professionals have called on schools to reopen, teacher union insistence on vaccinations as a condition for reopening became a roadblock in the process, according to Izumi.
“The teachers’ unions claim they want schools to open, but their workplace demands are often so extreme that there is no realistic reopening date in sight,” Izumi said. “The director of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, has said that vaccinations for teachers are not a prerequisite for the safe reopening of schools, despite claims to the contrary by teachers’ unions.”
Izumi noted several recent studies have all found extremely low rates of COVID-19 transmission in schools that have stayed open during the pandemic, even in areas of high community transmission.
“A January CDC study of nearly 5,000 students and 650 staff at 17 schools in Wisconsin found that children are not the main spreaders of the disease, and that if there is transmission from children, it almost always occurs outside of schools, not inside schools,” Izumi said. “These studies all conclude that schools that have been closed can be reopened safely.”
Linking the reopening of schools to community transmission rates also has slowed the pace of resuming classroom instruction.
“School reopening guidance from the CDC and California’s recently-enacted reopening law link reopening of schools to community transmission rates of COVID-19, despite scientific evidence showing that in-school transmission rates are much lower than community transmission rates,” Izumi said.
Many parents have expressed frustration that reopening efforts lack accountability, the Mercury News reported.
Izumi noted state data released in January shows California has experienced a record one-year enrollment decline of 155,000 students – more than five times greater than California’s usual annual rate of enrollment decline – and that policymakers and the public should take this opportunity to think about how education is being delivered in California.
“Decision makers need to reopen schools as quickly as possible,” Izumi said. “As the research of medical experts have proven and as the experience of both public and private schools have shown, it is possible to open schools safely for both students and for staff members.”