California just made it significantly easier for K-12 schools to bring students back to campus full-time — but some of the state’s largest districts and most powerful unions are pushing back, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of students may not receive daily in-person instruction this school year.

Student desks should now be kept a minimum of 3 feet apart, down from the previously recommended 6 feet, according to guidelines the California Department of Public Health released Saturday. The revision came a day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced its spacing recommendations from 6 to 3 feet and less than a week after a superior court judge blocked California from enforcing its spacing rules because of their impact on students’ educational equality. The state on Saturday also made it easier for middle and high schools to reopen in the most restrictive purple tier.

The new spacing guidelines quadruple the number of students who can sit in a classroom at one time, paving the way for schools to transition from hybrid learning to full-time in-person instruction. But the final decision still rests with local districts and teachers unions — and many, including Los Angeles Unified, have struck reopening deals contingent on desks being 6 feet apart.

The California Teachers Association also appeared to oppose the new guidelines, which it framed as “another confusing message” that could result in “cramming young adults into classrooms.”

The backlash could increase pressure on Gov. Gavin Newsom to issue an executive order compelling schools to reopen full-time. Although Newsom said last week on CNN that he’s “been living through Zoom school,” Politico reported Friday that his four children have been attending in-person classes since October.

Meanwhile, many special-needs students appear to have regressed socially, physically and academically after having spent more than a year without critical in-person services, CalMatters’ Ricardo Cano and Elizabeth Aguilera report.

______________

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Sunday, California had 3,545,278 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 56,118 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to a CalMatters tracker.

California has administered 14,520,575 vaccine doses.

Plus: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. We’re also tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county and lawsuits against COVID-19 restrictions.


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1. Blue Shield balloons COVID costs

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, right, and Gov. Gavin Newsom tour the mass vaccination site at Dodger Stadium on Jan. 15, 2021. Photo by Irfan Khan, Los Angeles Times via AP/Pool

Partly as a result of hiring Blue Shield to run vaccine distribution, California’s COVID-19 response will cost $2 billion more than projected, with the state estimated to spend more than $15 billion through 2022, according to figures released last week by Newsom’s Department of Finance. California also recently signed a two-month, $13 million contract with management consulting firm McKinsey & Company to assist the state and Blue Shield in distributing vaccines. However, only eight counties and one city have signed agreements to join Blue Shield’s provider network, the state Department of Public Health said Friday. Of those, only Kern County signed a contract directly with Blue Shield, while the remaining eight jurisdictions signed a memorandum of understanding with the state that reverts some of Blue Shield’s authority back to local public health officials, the Los Angeles Times reports.

California appears to be the only state to have hired a health insurer to run its vaccine distribution — and it seems Blue Shield may have been chosen largely because of its lengthy relationship with Newsom. Over the past 16 years, Blue Shield has given nearly $23 million to the governor’s campaigns and special causes, California Healthline reports.

  • State Sen. Sydney Kamlager, a Los Angeles Democrat: “I don’t think having Blue Shield step in is going to get teachers vaccinated any quicker. I don’t think it’s going to get the 70-year-old Black folks vaccinated any quicker. … And they’re not doing it for free.”

2. Newsom reflects on past year

Newsom puts his face mask on after a news conference in Sacramento on Jan. 8, 2021. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP/Pool

A year after he issued the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home order, Newsom pinpoints one of his administration’s biggest missteps as the mid-June decision to allow many businesses to reopen — leading to such a massive surge in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths that the state locked down again in December. In interviews with the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Associated Press, Newsom and top administration officials reflect on the moments leading up to the first shelter-in-place order and the realization that restrictions were lifted too quickly last summer. The revelations raise the question of whether California, in the midst of its fastest reopening yet, could potentially see another surge in cases even as the pace of vaccinations ramps up.

3. Californians rally against anti-Asian racism

Community members attend a rally against anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander hate crimes in San Jose on March 13, 2021. Photo by Anda Chu, Bay Area News Group

Hundreds of Californians gathered over the weekend in San Francisco, San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles County and elsewhere to denounce anti-Asian racism in the wake of escalating harassment and violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, including last week’s shootings in Atlanta that left six women of Asian descent dead. San Francisco is increasing police patrols in communities with large Asian populations, and San Jose is forming community patrols to keep elderly Japantown residents safe.

Meanwhile, San Francisco’s beleaguered school board has come under fire yet again, with its vice president accused of showcasing anti-Asian racism in a string of 2016 tweets. In an unprecedented move, the city’s top elected officials — including Mayor London Breed, state lawmakers and nearly all supervisors — called Saturday for Alison Collins to resign. Collins, who has not resigned, said in a Saturday blog post her tweets “have been taken out of context,” but apologized for the “pain my words may have caused.” The campaign to recall Newsom also came under fire Sunday for using the phrase “Communist Chinese Party virus” on its website to refer to the coronavirus. The language has since been removed.


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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Will California’s $150 billion windfall from the federal government lead to new taxes?

Resolving California’s school stalemate: Data from a recent pilot program show that schools with rapid antigen testing can be the safest place in the community, argues Dr. Anthony Iton of the California Endowment.

The Catch-22 of the California condor: A first-of-its-kind proposal to address condors colliding with wind turbines places the tradeoffs of renewable energy in stark perspective, writes independent journalist Jane Braxton Little.


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Other things worth your time

California poised to make vaccines available to all by last week of April, Newsom says. // San Francisco Chronicle

In swift reversal, California will allow cheerleaders at youth sports games. // Mercury News

The three men who could take down Gavin Newsom. // Politico Magazine

Enrollment declines at California’s community colleges far greater than earlier predictions. // EdSource

Lawsuit against California Democrat alleges sexual harassment. // Sacramento Bee

New California justice reforms expose divide among crime survivors. // KQED

Inside the resurgence of far-right extremism in Orange County. // Los Angeles Times

San Francisco finds a way to build homeless housing cheaper and faster. A powerful opponent is fighting it. // San Francisco Chronicle

Tribal communities across the North Coast receive internet for the first time. // Eureka Times-Standard

California’s climate idea for coastal homes: Buy, rent, retreat. // NPR


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Emily Hoeven writes the daily WhatMatters newsletter for CalMatters. Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco Business...