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Too little, too late? Schools deal may not alter Newsom recall politics

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Those dynamics have created a political imperative for Newsom to show progress. While he hailed a deal Monday for “creating conditions where we expect in-person instruction,” political observers said the legislation itself might not yield quick dividends for the embattled governor. The general reaction seems to be less a celebration than a shrug for now, especially since closed schools aren’t opening overnight.

“Pandemic fatigue has set in for many families,” said professor Julie Marsh, director of the University of Southern California’s Policy Analysis for California Education. “For some, they’re going to look at this and wonder what took so long and feel it should’ve happened sooner.”

In recent weeks, Newsom has spoken often of the need to move fast and pressured allies by warning that union demands would prevent schools from reopening this year. After months of negotiations, Newsom and legislative leaders unveiled a pact to expedite the process by offering money to school districts that begin to return students by the end of March, including in areas of the state with higher infection rates. Plummeting coronavirus rates and Newsom’s decision to set aside vaccine doses for educators should put more schools in position to recommence in-person learning.

“So many of our kids and caregivers are celebrating this day because we all are united around coming back safely into the schools,” Newsom said at a Monday press conference with legislative leaders.

Even as Newsom touted the deal, it highlighted the limits of his authority over a decentralized archipelago of locally governed school districts. The agreement offers incentives for districts to reopen but does not require them to do so.

Democratic strategist Katie Merrill noted that “there’s a lot of carrot in this deal and not a lot of stick” — and voters could hold Newsom accountable if the carrot isn’t enough to entice school districts and unions.

“The governor doesn’t have a lot of control over that,” Merrill said, “but he’ll pay the price if the local school districts and teachers unions don’t reopen schools.”

Some parents immediately signaled that the plan will need to clear a high hurdle of skepticism. A statewide group advocating for schools to resume in-person instruction denounced the plan as a weak half-measure, noting it would allow some schools to remain closed and arguing for elected officials to take a more forceful approach.

“This isn’t a breakthrough, it’s a failure,” Berkeley parent and Open Schools California member Pat Reilly said in a statement. “Make no mistake, there will still be closed schools and kids left behind a month from now and months afterwards until the Governor, legislature or the courts force them open.”

The deal is unlikely to affect the recall’s chances of qualifying for the ballot. Proponents have been gathering signatures for months, capitalizing on widespread discontent that spiked during a second lockdown this winter. They claim they have already collected enough signatures to trigger an election, and the mid-March deadline to submit signatures will likely arrive before parents see much concrete reopening progress.

Education officials were hopeful the legislation would build on existing progress. Association of California School Administrators lobbyist Edgar Zazueta noted that even before the deal, “there’s more momentum to moving to in-person instruction than there has been in the past year” as more districts implement reopening plans. Zazueta predicted that there will still be holdouts among large urban districts but suggested it will become more difficult for them to stay closed as they become outliers.

“That pressure, seeing neighboring districts around them opening up, I think parents are going to take notice and there’s going to be acute pressure,” Zazueta said. “For these handfuls of communities that don’t see movement and don’t hear their district announce a plan there is the risk of frustration — ‘what about us?'”

Meanwhile, teachers unions and reluctant families may resent the governor and lawmakers dangling money to reopen by April 1. While the deal preserves local control, school employee groups have been reluctant all year to return and have accused reopening proponents of minimizing their safety concerns.

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