February 28, 2021
SACRAMENTO — Parents across California are protesting outside district offices, circulating petitions and dialing into school board meetings with a fury never before seen in the blue state.
Gone is the fear of being politically incorrect by siding with Donald Trump or facing criticism for not caring about teachers. Instead, parents in the nation’s biggest state are emboldened and organizing as President Joe Biden pledges to reopen schools and top national disease experts say it is safe to do so with the right precautions.
“All of us are isolated, frustrated, desperate and alone. Finding like-minded parents, I don’t feel like I’m crazy and have to scream into my pillow every night and cry myself to sleep,” said Lei Levi, a parent of two young children in Berkeley.
Nearly a year after most schools in the state closed, the parent movement is having its own moment in California. It could be just the beginning for a powerful new interest group with the potential to become a major player in state and local politics.
Few families thought they’d be locked out this long. With infection rates dropping dramatically and Gov. Gavin Newsom joining Biden in pushing to reopen, parents are holding both of the Democratic leaders accountable — and may become key to getting teachers to return.
Open Schools California, a parent group launched in January, is urging Newsom to get the state’s youngest students into classrooms now, calling it a “harm reduction approach” and warning of academic and social emotional consequences of prolonged loss of in-person instruction. One group has begun raising money to pay for electronic billboards declaring “MISSING: ALL CA STUDENTS.”
California parents still have to toe a fine line. They are adamant that they are not anti-union and that they care about their teachers, but they say the debate has become more emotional than scientific — shrouded in fear. They have found themselves in heated debates, on the opposite side of politicians and institutions they once supported.
The school reopening conversation is fraught with concerns about equity and privilege, as many private schools in California have been open for months while most public schools have not. Some parents speaking out are white and more affluent than other families in their districts, triggering criticisms. Some parents of color say they are reluctant to return to schools right now, citing distrust in their school system to give their children the support they need to reacclimate.
Federal, state and local health officials have given California school districts the green light to reopen, but most remain closed, stuck in union negotiations over teacher vaccinations and county virus metrics. Earlier this month, the city of San Francisco, with support from Mayor London Breed, sued its school district in an effort to get schools open. San Francisco Unified has yet to establish a return date, though there is general agreement on returning under certain conditions, including teacher vaccines at the current infection level.
For parents like Levi, the school reopening debate has become a “political disillusionment.”
“The values they think they’re upholding are sometimes suppressing the voices that they say they want to uplift,” Levi said of unions and others stalling school reopening. “Down is up, up is down. Nothing makes sense, and it’s really scary.”
Parents who want to see schools reopen have another concern: differentiating themselves from conservatives and Covid-19 deniers who have called for schools to stay open since the pandemic hit. California’s anti-vaccine movement has overlapped with anti-maskers and coronavirus conspiracy theorists who are also vocal about reopening schools, causing a messaging problem for parents now mobilizing to safely reopen schools.
“There’s a real concerted effort to always say ‘safely’ reopen and to always imply the science,” said Ernesto Falcon, a parent in El Cerrito. “We know there is a contingent of people out there who think Covid isn’t real and don’t believe in masks, and they are wrong. We are really trying to distinguish us from them.”
Newsom, a father of four, has aligned himself with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and reiterated that vaccines for teachers are not necessary for reopening despite union demands. But last week, the governor vowed to set aside 10 percent of California’s first dose allotment for all in-person school staff starting March 1.
The governor and state legislative Democrats have so far failed to come to an agreement on school reopening, with lawmakers pushing a bill that would encourage districts to reopen with $2 billion in “in-person instruction grants” with stricter standards for eligibility than Newsom first proposed. Under the plan, districts would not have to reopen entire elementary school classrooms until they reach 7 daily cases per 100,000 residents in a given county.
Newsom’s proposal set less stringent requirements and would’ve pushed elementary schools to open by February at 25 daily cases per 100,000. The Legislature’s plan sets the goal at April 15. Last week, the governor declared he would reject the bill written by fellow Democrats. “We would be, if we adopted that proposal, an extreme outlier,” Newsom said.
In California, local districts and their teachers unions have nearly complete control because reopening involves new workplace conditions that must be negotiated. The state cannot mandate that districts reopen without overriding local control, a cherished principle in school communities.
School employee unions are seeking vaccines and lower community infection rates, but they also want as many protections taken in the classroom as possible. That includes personal protective equipment, high-quality air filtration and regular asymptomatic testing to detect infections.
Newsom’s heightened push to open schools has drawn resistance from unions but has offered a glimpse of hope to some parents who have thought he was being too passive on the issue. Republicans, meanwhile, have pinned school closures on Newsom and have asked voters to sign recall petitions based on the issue.
Like teachers, parents are far from a monolith. Surveys have shown that Black and Latino families are less likely to return their children to classrooms, citing higher virus death rates and a distrust in the school system.
Carl Pinkston, operation director for the Sacramento-based Black Parallel School Board said Black families especially are worried about what happens once school is back in session. Will the extra resources offered in the pandemic, like devices and Wi-Fi, now disappear? Will suspensions get worse as kids reel from trauma and isolation? Will students of color fall through the cracks, and will the achievement gap widen even further?
“We’re left out of this conversation. No one has actually asked how Black and brown parents feel about this,” Pinkston said. “Black parents do this differently from other parents. It’s been a big rush to reopen, but we are deeply concerned what that reopening will mean and what kind of support our kids will have in terms of learning loss.”
Between talks with Newsom and lawmakers, the California Teachers Association held a news conference this month to show that they have parents on their side, too.
Parents at the event said they have been disenfranchised and don’t trust the school system to protect their children or teachers. They pointed to ever-changing guidance from national and state authorities and said they don’t want far flung politicians dictating what happens in their communities.
“Let me be clear: They don’t speak for me, and they don’t speak for my community,” Maricela Velasquez, a Fresno mother of four, said of parents vocal about reopening.
Still, for many other frustrated parents, anything short of a mandate to force schools open is not enough.
In a statement Friday, Open Schools California called the legislative plan “weak” and called on Newsom to “put children first and mandate that all students can return to their classrooms before we approach the one-year anniversary of school closures.”
“There needs to be clear direction from the state to break the logjam. The carrot and stick approach hasn’t worked,” said Tristan Leong, a parent of two students in the Davis Joint Unified School District. “School boards need the political cover from Newsom to push this forward. He’s going to have to decide where he’s going to take a hit from his political support.”