(Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for American Education, via EdSource)

Already-big differences on when to reopen schools became starker Wednesday when Gov. Gavin Newsom reiterated that campuses can open safely before vaccinating all teachers, while five unions representing California school employees set a new set of conditions that could make reopening less likely before the end of the school year.

The unions laid out their positions in a 7-page paper timed to influence districts contemplating a return to school as well as the Legislature. Legislative leaders are currently negotiating with Newsom over the terms for distributing $6.6 billion that the governor has proposed to encourage districts to reopen campuses this spring and to use this summer and next fall to compensate for learning lost during the pandemic.

The unions are California Teachers Association; California Federation of Teachers; California School Employees Association; Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Council 57 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Unions’ reopening plan

Their reopening plan would require that the state offer vaccinations to school employees before they return for in-person instruction and make it a priority to vaccinate all employees in schools that have opened already.

It also would prohibit the state from ordering schools to reopen before COVID-19 infection rates have dropped to the level with the lowest risk of transmission — the yellow tier — on the California Department of Public Health’s four-tier color-coded system for regulating commercial and school activities.

That’s three levels below the purple tier, the most restrictive tier designating widespread risk of virus transmission. Newsom had proposed to offer $2 billion in incentives for reopening elementary schools, starting this month, in counties with infection rates in the upper range of the purple tier, when there is a seven-day average of 25 or fewer new daily positive COVID-19 tests per 100,000 people.

As of Feb. 2, 54 of California’s 58 counties were in the purple tier, and none were in yellow. Since the statewide average daily rate of new cases is 48 cases per 100,000 people, most of the state’s districts are nowhere near the threshold for reopening.

State health guidelines

Under the current state health guidelines, K-6 schools can reopen in the purple tier (from 7 to 25 new positive cases per 100,000 people in a county) only if they comply with strict safety precautions and negotiate a reopening plan with employee unions. Middle schools and high schools can reopen in the red, or “substantial risk,” tier (4 to 7 new positive cases per 100,000 people in a county).

Under the union plan, districts should be permitted to reopen for all grades in the red tier and the “moderate risk” orange tier (1 to 3.9 new positive cases), but would not be required to do so.

Local school unions serving teachers and classified staff negotiate with district administrators the terms and working conditions of their contracts but they generally rely on their parent unions for advice and bargaining positions.

Contention over vaccinations

Vaccinations are the latest flashpoint in the debate over reopening campuses.

During a news conference Wednesday, Newsom said his view on vaccinations is “aligned” with the position of the Biden administration and the president’s newly appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control.

“We have many, many districts that have schools open, and they’ve been able to do it safely,” Newsom said.

At a White House briefing, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told reporters, “Vaccinations of teachers is not a prerequisite for safely reopening schools” as long an array of safety measures, including masking and proper ventilation, are in place. She said that the CDC is currently reviewing its guidance for schools.

Newsom’s position is not a change to his plan to reopen school campuses, although he was more explicit on Wednesday. He didn’t include a vaccinations requirement in his $2 billion Safe Schools for All incentive program, which he announced on Dec. 30. That plan is now tied up in negotiations with the Legislature, but Newsom hadn’t revised the plan to add vaccinations to the other prerequisites, which include masks, social distancing and proper ventilation.

Vaccinating teachers

Newsom reiterated that vaccinating teachers remains a priority, while clarifying what that means. Teachers have joined emergency responders and health care employees, food production and agricultural workers as the only employee groups to be designated a priority. But Newsom has also expanded the age group that is prioritized from 75 and older to those 65 and older, leading to uncertainty as to where school staff fall in line relative to millions of residents in that age group. Shortages and uneven allotments of vaccines among counties have compounded challenges.

County health departments in some small counties, including Placer, Napa and Butte, have begun to vaccinate teachers, while larger counties have not yet authorized teacher vaccinations.

Last week, and again on Wednesday, Newsom used boarding an airplane as an analogy. He said those 75 and older and health care workers and first responders were the first class, the first to board, followed by those 65 and older, the business class, then teachers and other priority occupations in premium class.

But just as airlines don’t wait for all business class passengers to board before the next in line, counties should now be vaccinating teachers simultaneously, he said, and praised the health departments, like the city of Long Beach, that have conducted vaccination clinics for teachers. Dozens of other county offices of education and county departments of public health, such as Sacramento, are working out the logistics and staffing for efficiently vaccinating teachers and staff at one time at school sites and county facilities, but have no idea when their counties will get enough vaccines and give them the go-ahead.

Timing is critical, and uncertainty of supplies is working against school reopening — if, as the unions insist, vaccinations are necessary for employees returning to school. Current vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna require a double vaccination, one month apart. Full protection from COVID-19 comes two weeks after the second shot for a total of six weeks from the time of the first shot. By that timeline, a district that administers the initial vaccine to its staff by March 1 wouldn’t open until mid-April. It’s too soon to predict whether counties would be in the orange or yellow tiers by that time.

By implying in their plan that vaccinations could be offered only to employees already on campuses or headed back to schools for in-person instruction, the unions headed off a potentially contentious issue — which schools and grades should get a priority for vaccinations. Those over 65, who comprise 75% of the deaths from COVID-19 in California, might be angered if they had to delay their shots as they wait for teachers in districts that are leaning toward not reopening until summer or fall.

State funding to help schools reopen

The state’s conditions or mandates for reopening schools and the funding that will help districts pay for reopening could determine the timing as well. Many districts balked at Newsom’s proposed requirements, seconded by employee unions, for extensive Covid testing of students and teachers, and the requirement to send K-6 students back amid high community infection rates in most counties, starting Feb. 15. But the first deadline for districts to apply for the funding of $450 to $700 per student passed Monday with no legislative action, and Newsom said last week that he was open to negotiating all aspects of his plan.

He did not refer to the $2 billion incentives at the news conference Wednesday. Instead, he included it with the $4.6 billion he also is proposing for summer school, extended learning time, counseling, tutoring and other measures to deal with the impact of campus closures due to the pandemic. “We are working very, very closely with the Legislature on putting forward $6.6 billion in an early action package to address the issue of learning loss,” he said.

With him at the news conference was Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who, as chair of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, is participating in the negotiations.

“We know the governor wants the schools to open safely,” Skinner said. “Our schools want to open safely, and the Legislature wants to get schools opened safely. We’re just hammering out the details to do that. And I’m confident we’ll get there.”

* Story originally published by EdSource.