Parents and students hold up signs in support of reopening schools at Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley. Parents and students staged a sit-in for equity in school reopening on Jan. 13, 2021. (Anna Vignet/KQED)
At a recent meeting of the Fremont Unified School District Board of Education, Superintendent CJ Cammack presented the results of a self-selecting survey of parents, asking their feelings about continuing remote learning across the district's 42 schools.
The survey results should have provided a level of comfort for the elected board to stay the course: 63% of the nearly 11,000 parents who responded said they preferred to have their child remain in distance learning for the rest of the school year.
Then the public comment period began.
For nearly an hour, parents called in to levy their frustrations at the board, urging its members to produce a plan to reopen classrooms in the Bay Area's third largest school district.
"What about the 36% of the district? Are they not important?" asked Irene Shen, a district parent. "Not every parent will come here to speak but everyone will vote with their feet."
The status of public schools in California has remained largely static in the year since the pandemic began: Most remain shuttered, and large Bay Area districts like San Francisco, Oakland and Fremont have been in distance learning throughout the pandemic.
But the political landscape is shifting rapidly as local and state officials attempt to chart the course for a potential return to class. Finding a consensus among parents on such an emotionally charged issue is proving impossible, with surveys and polling providing limited guidance.
The only sure thing in the debate over reopening schools, Cammack said, is that, “Any return to on-campus learning will not be fast enough for some, and far too soon for others."
A 'Politically Fragile' Issue
That's no solace to policymakers who prefer to operate with more well-defined levels of public opinion.
Local districts looking for guidance from the state Legislature have so far found gridlock, as Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom have yet to agree on a plan to return students to class.
A proposal unveiled last week by Democrats in the state Senate and Assembly would send billions of dollars to local districts to bring back grades K-6 by April 15 — if coronavirus case rates drop below 7 cases per 100,000 residents (the state's "red" tier) and teachers are offered vaccines.
Newsom has argued that guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes it clear that schools can reopen immediately with the proper mitigation measures, and that teacher vaccinations are not a necessary prerequisite.
Facing the pressure of a potential recall election, Newsom has grown bolder in his pronouncements that union intransigence could leave students out of classrooms until the fall. Labor leaders, who heavily supported Newsom in his 2018 run for governor, have responded by singling him out for criticism and launching their own ad campaign to promote a reopening strategy that includes vaccinations.
"I don't think there's an easy solution to any of this," said former state Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, who chaired the Assembly Education Committee.
Buchanan said education policy has always been a politically fragile issue. During her days in the state Legislature, she said, few lawmakers showed interest in sitting on education committees.
"No one wanted to serve on the Education Committee unless that was your passion, because it had more bills than any other committee and the meetings were longer," Buchanan remembered. "And the reason they were longer is because it's a very emotional issue."
"When you're dealing with people's children, that's their most precious gift and they care about them and they want to do what's best for them," she said.
But finding a statewide consensus among parents about what is best for kids has been futile. And public polling has offered lawmakers little counsel, with conflicting results that indicate support for in-person learning but little agreement on what a safe return to it looks like.
"It is difficult to identify the signal in the noise of all of the polling data," said Martin West, professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "Exactly what question you pose to parents matters a huge deal."
What the Data Says, and Doesn't
Education Next, a research journal run by West, surveyed parents around the country toward the end of 2020 and found that parents of 60% of students believe their kids are learning less during the pandemic. But parents of 74% of students still expressed satisfaction with the instruction and activities provided at their child's school, and views of teachers unions remained at pre-pandemic levels.
Likewise, a February poll from HuffPost/YouGov found Americans strongly support the bargaining position of teachers unions, but just 41% believe the risk of reopening schools outweighs the consequence of keeping them closed.
Without hard data on their constituent's views, state lawmakers, including Newsom, have drawn on their own experiences as parents to empathize with public frustration.
During a Monday hearing on a reopening bill, legislators representing predominately Black and Latino communities shared stories of residents for whom a reopening of schools would come with a new set of anxieties and challenges.
“As a [former] teacher, and all my friends are teachers, they’re ready to go back to the classroom, they know the importance of that," said Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens. "But they are afraid when they see the rates of infection in Bell Gardens."
In practice, California's state government has largely kicked school reopening decisions to the local level. Both Newsom and legislative Democrats have language in their latest proposals that would require a collective bargaining agreement between local districts and unions on reopening safety protocols — essentially ensuring that political battle over reopening will play out one by one in the hundreds of districts across the state.
And at the local level, piecing together a consensus from surveys, interest group lobbying and parental outrage — while identifying which voices are missing from the conversation — has been just as difficult, particularly for elected board members promising to keep equity at the center of the reopening debate.
In the Oakland Unified School District, a fall 2020 survey found 41% of parents planned to send their child back to school if classrooms reopened, compared to 27% who said they would not, and 31% who were "unsure."
But among Black parents, the split was 35% to 33% against returning, with Latino parents responding with a similar 36% to 32% divide.
A survey of San Francisco Unified School District parents found that 57% of respondents planned to return their children to in-person learning — with wide gaps between white (80%), Black (57%), Latino (61%) and Asian (36%) respondents.
Equity Emerges as a Fault Line
Many supporters of reopening classrooms have rallied around the call of equity, with some trumpeting the disproportionate effects of distance learning that have left low-income, Black and Latino children less access to live instruction and internet-connected learning. But there is no agreed-upon definition of equity, and it's not always members of the Black and Latino communities making those calls.
“Equity requires meeting the needs of the most marginalized students. Distanced learning has widened the opportunity and performance gap," said Padma Gopalakrishnan, a parent who weighed in at the Fremont Unified board meeting. "The survey did not identify these students. We need to help them ... so we need to open our schools."
More on equity in school reopening
Paul Fong, a former state assemblyman who until recently led the faculty union at the San Jose-Evergreen Community College District, said he wouldn't give added weight to vocal parents "just because they're squeaking louder."
"I really feel for the school board members right now because they're the ones that are on the front lines of this, getting the heat from the community," Fong added.
But the white-hot light of the school reopening debate has exposed the political naivete of many officials serving on local school boards — positions long considered a first step toward higher office.
In Contra Costa County, the entire Oakley Union Elementary School District Board resigned last week after making derogatory comments on a live video stream about parents who had pushed to reopen schools.
And in San Francisco, board members made national headlines for embarking on a quixotic mission to rename dozens of (still empty) public schools, in some cases relying on flawed research to render judgment on whether a name was connected to enslavement, oppression or racism.
Now, groups of irate parents have progressed from survey responses and public comment periods to a more menacing form of political feedback: a vow to recall or challenge school board members who don't reopen schools.
A political action committee called The Campaign for Better Public Schools launched in San Francisco last week, backed by parents with the goal of shaking up a board that they believe has been incompetent and recalcitrant, with little to show for months of discussion and millions in federal and state relief dollars.
The committee may pursue a direct recall of sitting board members, challenge them in future elections or work to change how members are selected — either by breaking the board into districts or handing appointment power to the mayor, said Seeyew Mo, the group's executive director.
"The whole point of my organization is to give voices to those who are not represented, so we welcome everyone and we will continue to work to make sure that diverse voices are represented," Mo said. "And I don't think there is any commissioner on the board or any of the organizations out there that can claim that they represent everybody."
Short of actually recalling commissioners, supporters of the San Francisco campaign don't have to look far for examples of payoff: The San Ramon Valley Unified School District welcomed back elementary school students in early February, weeks after three board members were targeted with a recall campaign in response to their decision to postpone an earlier reopening.
Organizers of "Parent Power" in San Ramon told the Mercury News that they plan to continue gathering signatures to force a recall election for the three board members in the future.
Parent Groups a 'Major Force,' but for Whom?
For school board officials, the organization of parents railing against school closures offers a rare political counterweight to the clout of local teachers unions, said former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos.
"The sad part about the school board elections is that there is only one dominant, overwhelming power, and that is the teachers union," said Agnos.
But others view the reopening advocates, with their finely written press releases announcing camera-friendly protests in front of shuttered schools, as just the latest example of wealthy constituents finding a way to elevate their own concerns — not those of the broader community.
"The folks who are the most persistent in communicating with [elected] offices are almost always the more affluent, connected people in the district," said Jim Stearns, a San Francisco political consultant, who is currently advising the United Educators of San Francisco teachers union. "They almost always have an outsized voice in issues like this, and I do think that's the same here."
The question for local and state politicians is how high the heat from the reopening debate will rise.
Perhaps the state's improving COVID-19 outlook will result in the reopening of classrooms and a cooling of tensions. Maybe the local recall campaigns will turn more nakedly partisan, potentially turning off liberals who support teachers unions and don't have an immediate stake in the issue.
But the potential for local school issues to escalate politically should not be underestimated. In the early 1970s, San Francisco lawyer Quentin Kopp launched a decades-long political career with his opposition to the city's school desegregation plan — channeling the anger that white and Chinese parents held towards busing into a successful run for supervisor in 1971. Kopp's career would take him to the state senate and a superior court judgeship.
A few years later, parent activist Bobbi Fiedler organized tens of thousands of parents in the San Fernando Valley against desegregation busing, and, in 1977, she toppled the president of the Los Angeles school board. Three years later, Fiedler was in Congress, after riding the same issue to knock off 10-term U.S. Rep. James Corman.
Already, national Republicans are eyeing the school reopening debate as a political winner to gain back ground in suburban House districts in 2022. And many California families may already be "voting with their feet" and leaving public schools — although the data on the state's record pandemic enrollment drop is still noisy.
While the movement's breakout potential might be limited by time and the region's liberal leanings, Agnos says parent groups are just in their "embryonic stage."
"If there is no balanced response from the school district in general and the school board in particular, I think this movement could grow into a major force," he said.