Funk: Sacramento needs to lead on reopening schools
Gov. Gavin Newsom outlines his 2021-2022 budget proposal during a news conference in Sacramento in January 2021. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

For the past week or so, Gov. Gavin Newsom has been making the rounds to school districts across California touting that two-thirds of the approximately 11,000 schools have reopened under the AB/SB 86 incentive plan.

At every stop, Newsom states that he expects schools to fully reopen in the fall. That means “full, in-person instruction, all day for five days per week.”

The governor and the Legislature are using the AB/SB 86 incentive plan as an opportunity to test the waters this spring.

“We can do this, and we must do it. And we must do it sustainably, and we must prepare now for full in-person instruction come this next school year,” Newsom said. “In order to do that we have to prove that we can safely do this, prove that we can continue the progress we have made.”

I agree with the notion of testing the waters and getting our employees and students back this spring in a thoughtful and measured way using layered mitigations such as mask wearing, social distancing and other protocols to keep everyone safe.  Now that 16-year olds are eligible to receive their vaccine, the goal of fully reopening in the fall is truly achievable.

The challenge with the governor and Legislature’s approach is the same challenge I wrote about in my column last month.  Words matter! When the governor states, “Schools across California should be ready, willing and able to fully reopen to all students in the fall,” he is not using his full powers as governor.

Using words like “should,” “pushes,” or “calls for” schools to reopen versus “must,” “will,” or “mandated” requires a different response from the 1,100 school districts with separately elected school boards and bargaining units who are left to figure out or negotiate the meaning of the governor’s words and the true intent of AB/SB 86 and his “pony show” in his latest press conferences.

The governor does not like mandates. He prefers an open hand versus a fist. However, he used a fist last spring through his executive order powers to close down the economy while putting the entire state in shelter in place. Schools have been closed ever since.

The governor announced that he hopes by June 15 the state of California will eliminate the color tiered system, effectively opening up the entire state to try to get back to some sense of normalcy. What is the new normal? Will we not have some form of layered mitigations in place for the foreseeable future? Do we want to go back to the same way we have always functioned as schools?

I fully expect all schools to be open this fall, similar to pre-COVID-19 schooling. Nothing will be back to normal because we will still require layered mitigations such as mask wearing to be in place. The opportunity that we cannot ignore and allow to go to waste is simply to go back to how we have always done things in education. We need to embrace this as an opportunity to learn how to better serve our students and community. Sacramento needs to be brave and mandate that schools “will” be open in the fall for in-person, all day, everyday instruction.

The upcoming state budget is the opportunity for the governor and Sacramento to truly lead when it comes to having our schools reopen in the fall and to provide as much flexibility for the school system to really transform how we teach, learn, co-create and co-facilitate, co-learn as a systemic school system in California.

If the governor and the Legislature were willing to suspend certain parts of the state education code and provide the extra resources needed to meet the challenges of distance learning during the pandemic, then why not take the same approach to incorporate a much-needed new paradigm of teaching and learning after the pandemic?

Gov. Newsom, please do not allow the potential recall to cloud your judgement or impede the opportunity to put your signature on how schools operate moving forward. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity. You can be the transformational leader you want to be.

San José Spotlight columnist Chris Funk is the superintendent of the East Side Union High School District. His columns appear every third Monday of the month. Contact Chris at [email protected] or follow @chrisfunksupt on Twitter.

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