With the school year rapidly slipping away, the issue of vaccines for teachers is at the center of negotiations between Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers.
More California elementary school students could begin returning to their classrooms by the spring if Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers settle their differences over when teachers and staff receive COVID-19 vaccinations, an agreement the governor suggested Monday could be reached in the next few days.
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The moves in Sacramento come as school officials and political leaders face increasing pressure to reopen campuses that have been largely shuttered for 11 months, with political jousting breaking out in recent days in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
It’s becoming clear, however, that even a gradual reopening of campuses will be directly tied to a contentious issue: Should educators get a guaranteed place in line for COVID-19 vaccinations when there are not nearly enough doses to go around?
Los Angeles school chief Austin Beutner leveled his own political salvo on the vaccine issue Monday, saying that if he got 25,000 COVID-19 vaccinations he could reopen elementary schools for a quarter-million children as soon as overall health conditions in the county permit. Pressed with an acute vaccine shortage, county health officials responded that they would not supply them — at least not for a few weeks.
Locally, teachers’ unions across Santa Cruz County have penned a joint letter saying that they only would fully return to the classroom should they get vaccinated.
Newsom acknowledged Monday that his push to quickly open campuses — and curtail an academic and emotional disaster for students — will require additional measures. He said he hoped a deal between his office and the Legislature would emerge within days.
“We hope to get there this week, and we can announce some of that progress,” Newsom said about a possible deal with lawmakers. “It includes a prioritization framework to get our teachers vaccinated.”
Under existing state guidelines, school employees are eligible to receive a vaccine, but it is up to local health agencies to decide when they can make appointments. In Santa Cruz County, health officials have deemed that it’s best for people 65 and older to get vaccinated first, and there simply hasn’t been enough supply of vaccines to get that job done.
Citing the local option to immunize teachers, the governor insisted that teachers already have been prioritized, but “we want to clarify that further and that will be part of what we hope to announce.”
Interviews with legislative sources suggested that lawmakers at the Capitol want a deal with the governor to give teachers and school staff the opportunity to receive the vaccine in phases before they return to the classroom under a model that allows for a gradual reopening — with the youngest students possibly among the first to return.
If such a deal emerges, it would conform closely to what teacher unions have been asking for and would also please many school district leaders.
At the same time, by offering immunizations to only a limited group of educators, state officials would hope to placate advocates from outside education — who represent other groups with a strong claim for priority status.
Even though campuses in other states and parts of California have opened without access to vaccines, their availability has emerged as a sticking point. And timing is key as the school year slips away. On one hand, infection rates are rapidly falling across California — increasing the likelihood of faster reopenings. Pushing up against that is the lengthy period need to achieve full immunity after inoculation, about five to six weeks after the first dose.
Some experts and officials have said that an in-person school year could become a lost cause if teachers don’t have the first dose in their arms by March 1.
For Newsom, the ground has shifted even since last week, when he insisted that vaccines were not essential to reopening. For evidence, he pointed to statements made that same day from President Biden and the new leader of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But Newsom already was rowing against a powerful political current in a state where teacher unions are among the most influential groups. His Dec. 30 proposal for $2 billion in grants to nudge campuses to open received a lukewarm response from legislators last month.
Education advocates also have been concerned about the long-term costs of coronavirus testing — which officials from President Biden on down tout as essential. Even though federal and state coronavirus aid has totaled in the billions of dollars, school district leaders worry that too little could remain to deal with long-term learning loss and the harms of social isolation.
Members of the state Senate and Assembly met through the weekend and beyond in “advanced conversations” over funding to reopen campuses, said sources involved in the negotiations.
Under a plan coming together in the Legislature, employees would receive vaccines before they return to in-person learning. Teacher unions also are pressing lawmakers for immediate access to vaccines for teachers already working on campus. The sources requested anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal details about discussions. Another point being considered would leave discretion over reopening to local school district officials.
Newsom has supported a phased-in reopening from the get-go, but has not supported immunizations as a precondition. The administration also wants the flexibility for districts in counties in the purple tier — the state’s rating for areas with the worst health crisis — to reopen.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention joined the Biden administration last week in reasserting that campuses could reopen without teacher vaccinations provided strict safety protocols were followed. Conclusions regarding data over school safety have been hotly debated.
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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times, a Lookout content partner.