Schools should seek to reopen this academic year, Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell says

Long Beach Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell hasn’t held back in his criticism of decisions to largely keep schools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, last week saying the current situation amounts to “state-sanctioned segregation,” a criticism of the fact that some districts are open while others aren’t and that poorer students are doing worse with online learning.

“Some kids get to go and some don’t, that’s not what California stands for,” he told Politico.

O’Donnell—who chairs the Assembly Education Committee and was a teacher before going into politics—stood by the statement in an interview this week, saying he thinks districts who don’t try to bring kids back as quickly as possible should be called out.

With the current surge in coronavirus cases, districts are in no position to reopen, he said, but as soon as cases subside enough that their counties fall out of the state’s most restrictive “purple tier” of coronavirus rules, districts should be ready to pull the trigger.

“We can’t open schools right now, we’re in the middle of a significant surge,” O’Donnell said. “But going forward we need to ensure that districts are ready to open without delay once we drop out of that. We’ve had enough time to prepare to be open once the surge ends … The state is looking for school districts to have a plan and it’s going to be talking to school districts that don’t. You’d better be ready when the time is there.”

O’Donnell, who is a parent of Long Beach Unified School District high school students, said he’s heard from a number of other legislators who feel the same. O’Donnell said he expects school districts to have used the time they were shut down to negotiate with teachers’ unions and other labor partners in preparation for a swift reopening.

“The negotiations should have already occurred,” he said. “What are you waiting for? I don’t sense that there’s been a lot of urgency in some districts even before the (recent) surge.”

In the LBUSD’s case, the district is still holding bargaining sessions with the Teachers Association of Long Beach. The district says it’s planning for a Jan. 28 reopening, but it hasn’t yet announced a Memorandum of Understanding with TALB.

Negotiating with its employees is one of the hurdles the LBUSD cited when the district decided not to pursue waivers to reopen kindergarten through 2nd grade—something the city allowed back in October.

LBUSD’s school board called that waiver process “divisive,” in part because it required buy-in from its labor unions.

Six private schools in Long Beach have since used the waiver process to reopen lower grades.

O’Donnell’s decision to put pressure on schools could put him at odds with teachers’ unions in the state, which have been some of the largest supporters of his campaigns.

But, the assemblyman stressed there’s currently no way for schools to reopen before conditions improve enough to drop their counties out of the purple tier of COVID-19 restrictions. The state’s regulations bar schools from fully reopening for in-person classes until their respective counties have been in the red tier for two weeks. The red tier is just below the purple tier on the state’s color-coded ranking of outbreaks.

Most LBUSD parents apparently agree with O’Donnell sense of urgency. A majority of them requested some form of in-person learning for their students this year.

The closures, he argued, are “hitting low income and middle class families really hard. This is getting everybody.”

O’Donnell criticized districts like San Bernardino City Unified, which recently announced it would remain online for the rest of the school year.

“There’s no data to support shutting down for the year,” O’Donnell said.

Long Beach and others, he said, should look to nearby Los Alamitos School District, which has been open since early October and will remain open even as Orange County has moved into the purple tier. As of Nov. 24 there were only eight confirmed active cases in the district, with more than 8,000 students and faculty.

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