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In This Moment (7/9): The Politics of Reopening Schools

July 9, 2020

When summer comes to an end, what will school be like? Educators across California and the country are working hard to answer that question, drawing on available guidance and taking into account local context. As we note below, reopening schools has also become a political issue, with state and federal leaders weighing in on what is needed.

In other news, the University of California (UC) Regents confirmed Dr. Michael Drake as the next president of the UC system. He will be the UC’s first Black president.

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Reopening School Becomes Increasingly Political

Top of mind for educators, administrators and parents as summer ticks away is how to safely reopen schools in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic as the cases continue to climb in California and nationwide. Districts around the state have begun announcing their local reopening plans based on responses from parents and teachers, taking into account the state guidance that is still trickling out as part of the budget deal signed last week by Governor Newsom. The Legislature and Governor went to great lengths to emphasize the importance of “in person instruction” for students and outlined the circumstances in which Distance Learning may be offered. The specific parameters and requirements for a distance learning program can be found in Section 34 of the K-12 education budget trailer bill, Senate Bill (SB) 98.

In his signing message for SB 98, the Governor expanded on the reasoning behind the distance learning structure described in the bill, stating:

“It is the expectation of the state that if a school offers hybrid or mixed delivery instructional models, it will do so through a framework of maximum teacher-student engagement, with plans in place to ensure that no child falls through the cracks. This balance of flexibility for schools and instructional accountability is essential to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic while minimizing the impact of educational disruption on student learning.”

In addition to guidance provided by the California Department of Education,the California Department of Public Health has also provided a set of guidelines. The County Public Health Officers have also been providing a clearer regional risk as hotspots throughout the state continue to shift.

Adding to the already complicated reopening decisions the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) this week advocated that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” AAP also recognizes that “schools are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being and provide our children and adolescents with academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity, among other benefits.”

Finally, earlier this week President Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pushed for schools to reopen in fall and threatened to cut federal funding to states that do not fully reopen. The President stated that he would “put pressure” on Governors reluctant to reopen schools, and Secretary Devos stated that she is “very seriously” considering withholding federal funds.

UC Announces New President

The UC Board of Regents voted unanimously on Tuesday to confirm the appointment of Dr. Michael Drake as the 21st president of the UC system. Dr. Drake spent most of his academic career in the UC system prior to becoming the president of Ohio State University in 2014. He is a product of the UC system, receiving his M.D. from UC San Francisco in 1975.

Dr. Drake, who will be stepping in to lead the UC system at a time of pandemic and what he called “yawning wounds of social injustice,” will be the first Black president to lead the system. John Perez, Chair of the Board of Regents who oversaw the extensive months long search for a new UC president to take over for the retiring Janet Napolitano said referring to Dr. Drake, “we wanted a new president who can both lead UC through these unprecedented times and who can position the university to expand on its excellence in the years ahead.” Dr. Drake will take over the 285,000-student UC system in August.