Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to let local governments individually decide how to respond to the coronavirus threat has resulted in disaster. Hopefully, he won’t repeat his error by allowing local school officials to send children back into classrooms while infections are soaring.
After early success in slowing the virus’ spread thanks to a statewide lockdown, California is hurtling backward. Infections are spiking, hospital beds are filling and people are dying. Businesses that reopened weeks ago are shuttering again.
Newsom likes to say that “localism is determinative,” but May and June proved that localism is deadly during a pandemic. Counties rushed to reopen before it was safe and we’re paying the price. Now, some local school districts are pushing ahead with plans to reopen schools despite the risks.
On Monday, the Orange County Board of Education voted to let schools reopen without masks or social distancing. On Tuesday, the Placer County Office of Education issued guidelines for school reopening that require teachers, but not students, to wear masks. On Thursday, the Clovis Unified School District voted to force teachers to return to the classroom despite Fresno County’s surging infection rate.
Placer officials told The Sacramento Bee that the county’s guidelines “could change with mandates from the California Department of Public Health.” Clovis school officials also indicated that new state requirements could shift their plans.
Governor, that’s your cue.
California needs strong, clear leadership to steer us through this emergency. Newsom exhibited such leadership in March when he ordered a statewide shutdown. Unfortunately, the governor waffled in May, reversing our progress.
Now, the state is in once again in dire need of decisive action — and Newsom can look to Southern California for a model.
On Monday, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner announced that the state’s largest school district — with over 600,000 students — would keep its classrooms closed for now. His decision drew derision from President Donald Trump, who is demanding that all schools reopen.
Beutner is unfazed.
“You can’t just wish us back to school,” said Beutner, noting that infection rates in Los Angeles are currently at “five-alarm fire” levels.
“Records show that hospitalizations of patients with confirmed coronavirus infections have jumped about 31% over the past three weeks,” according to the Los Angeles Times. A record high of nearly 2,200 coronavirus patients were hospitalized in LA on Monday, with infections rising among younger people.
“When you pull all those pieces together, you see all the health factors of the community going in the wrong direction with a virus where there will be, and are, a number of silent spreaders — it could be children or adults — and we can’t safely bring them back to a congregate setting for now,” Beutner said.
On Wednesday, the Sacramento County Office of Education also announced that classrooms here will remain closed.
Beutner said his district will focus on online “distance learning” until it’s safe to do otherwise. He also outlined the steps necessary to ensure safety.
First, the infection rate must drop to significantly lower levels. In addition, Beutner says schools must be able to conduct testing and contact tracing.
“I’m frustrated … because the testing and the tracing is the missing piece that nobody’s talking about,” Beutner said. “Nobody’s connecting that to schools. The Dodgers, the Padres — they’re getting tested to go back to work. What about teachers and students?”
“People are asking us, ‘what are you doing for the students?’ I’d ask the health authorities what [they’re] doing about testing, because that gets us back to school,” he added.
Unfortunately, California now has a shortage of testing supplies. On Monday, Gov. Newsom encouraged Californians to get tested. A day later, Dr. Mark Ghaly announced that the state was shifting its guidelines to prioritize vulnerable and high-risk populations.
Black, Latino and lower-income Californians have suffered disproportionately due to the virus, and they also have the most to lose from school closures. Nearly 20 percent of California students, many of them children of color, lack internet connections at home. Without this basic tool, many will get left behind.
Until it’s safe to return to the classroom, Beutner said the best thing federal government can do to support students is provide the funds necessary to pay for the tools they need to learn online.
While COVID-19 has proved particularly fatal to elderly people, the coronavirus can infect and kill children. In Florida, for example, 31 percent of coronavirus tests in children have been positive.
Today, Gov. Newsom plans to provide updated guidance for California’s schools. He should take the opportunity to provide clear, decisive leadership to local districts. He should lay out a plan to ensure that schools don’t needlessly put lives at risk by reopening too quickly.
Newsom — who literally wrote a book on how to bring government into the digital age — should also say how he will make sure every student has the technological access necessary to participate in online classes.
We all want schools to reopen. Children need education. Parents need to work. But Gov. Newsom must not forget the painful lesson California learned when he allowed local leaders to let down their guard before it was safe.