By overwhelming bipartisan majorities, both chambers of California's Legislature passed a school reopening plan on Thursday that had been blasted by teachers unions as "propagating structural racism."
The bill passed the Senate unanimously, and by a nearly unanimous vote of 76-4 in the House. Both chambers are overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats.
The bill does not require schools to reopen, but it does condition receipt of around $2 billion in grant money for districts on schools reopening for at least part time in-person learning — at least for younger students — by the end of March. The plan does not place any prerequisites for reopening on full teacher vaccination, consistent with CDC guidance which also does not state that teachers must be vaccinated in order for schools to safely reopen.
Teachers unions in some of California's larger cities have sharply criticized the plan. The president of the Unified Teachers of Los Angeles Union said earlier this week, "We are being unfairly targeted by people who are not experiencing this disease in the same ways as students and families are in our communities. If this was a rich person's disease, we would've seen a very different response. We would not have the high rate of infections and deaths. Now educators are asked instead to sacrifice ourselves, the safety of our students, and the safety of our schools."
The fact that the bill passed a legislature so thoroughly dominated by Democrats perhaps reflects the widespread frustration of California parents with schools' reticence to reopen, which has not softened in spite of scientific evidence that schools do not represent a significant threat of transmission of COVID-19, especially with proper safety protocols. Due to pressure from teachers unions, most school districts in California have had no in-person learning for almost a year.
Democrats who supported the bill expressed their frustration with the state's school districts' refusal to reopen for in-person learning, and expressed concern that California students were falling behind the rest of the country in their education.
"It is hard to overstate the damage that has been done and is being inflicted on our children — on our state's children, our future — by not having in-person learning," said state Sen. Scott Wiener (D), who supported the bill.
Although Republicans in the assembly supported the plan, they also criticized it as a "half-measure," preferring legislation that would have required schools to reopen, or at least conditioning the receipt of grant money on full 5-day-a-week reopening, but noted that the bill was better than nothing.
Senate Republican leader Scott Wilk stated that he was voting for the bill "reluctantly," and called upon Gov. Gavin Newsom to issue an executive order forcing schools to reopen.
Newsom, who is facing a recall election this fall that was fueled in large part by parent anger over schools' refusal to reopen, is expected to sign the bill Friday.