In summary

While Gov. Newsom brags about students returning to classrooms, an EdSource report found many districts are experiencing a massive uptick in chronic absenteeism.

It would seem that the kids are not all right.

The day after he secured a landslide victory in the Sept. 14 recall election, Gov. Gavin Newsom visited an Oakland school to tout the state’s progress in reopening campuses, noting that 95% to 100% of students in most districts had returned to in-person instruction. But that picture was complicated by a Monday EdSource report that found many districts are experiencing a massive uptick in chronic absenteeism — students who miss more than 10% of school days. Since the school year started:

  • 46% of students at Thermalito Union Elementary, a rural district serving mostly low-income families in Butte County, have been chronically absent — up from 8.8% two years ago.
  • 39% of Stockton Unified students have been chronically absent — more than double the rate two years ago.
  • Almost 33% of Oakland Unified students have been chronically absent.
  • More than 26% of Elk Grove Unified students have been chronically absent.

Experts say the staggering numbers are due partly to kids in quarantine, who are counted absent if they don’t log on every day and complete their assignments. Another possible reason for the skyrocketing absenteeism: a surge in families who want their children to continue learning remotely. Many of the 15,000 Los Angeles Unified students who signed up for the district’s independent study program have encountered snafus that blocked them from attending school for days or even weeks, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The problem is especially acute for students with disabilities. Newsom last week signed legislation clarifying that students with special needs can continue accessing services remotely — but some have already gone more than a month without any instruction or specialized care, as CalMatters has reported.

Further complicating matters is California’s shortage of teachers and substitutes. A whopping 37% of positions in Los Angeles Unified are currently filled by substitutes — who, under state law, must be transferred to different students after 30 days (a timeframe recently extended to 60 days through July 1, 2022). The sheer chaos and difficulty of setting up a reliable staffing plan is one reason why many districts this year won’t be able to deliver on Newsom and lawmakers’ $5 billion plan to address learning loss through expanded school days and summer programs.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Sunday, California had 4,471,635 confirmed cases (+0.5% from previous day) and 68,362 deaths (+0.4% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 49,116,036 vaccine doses, and 70% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

Plus: CalMatters is tracking the results of the Newsom recall election and the top 21 bills state lawmakers sent to Newsom’s desk.

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1. Judge mandates vaccination for prison guards

Guards monitor inmates at San Quentin Prison. Photo by Penni Gladstone for CalMatters

California prison officials and employee unions have two weeks to come up with a plan to implement mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for prison staff, inmates who work outside the facilities and prisoners who want in-person visitation, a federal judge ruled Monday. The order came a few days after a federally appointed official who oversees medical care in California’s prison system urged the court to require vaccines for prison guards, citing the rapid spread of the delta variant and ongoing outbreaks traced to infected staff members. But it could face a legal challenge from the powerful prison guards’ union, which has so far been exempt from Newsom’s sweeping mandates impacting other state employees, CalMatters’ Byrhonda Lyons reports. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association donated $1.75 million to committees fighting the Newsom recall — the sixth-largest contribution overall. 

Meanwhile, California on Monday had the lowest coronavirus case rate in the country, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

2. Newsom signs key election, labor bills

Assemblymembers Kevin Kiley and James Gallagher have secured a court ruling against Newsom over the vote-by-mail executive order. The case is likely to go to the state supreme court. Photo illustration by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
A California vote-by-mail ballot. Photo illustration by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Newsom on Monday whittled down the stack of 500-plus bills on his desk by signing a bunch related to elections and workers’ rights. Here’s a look at what some of the new laws mean for the Golden State:

3. The political calculus of redistricting

Image via iStock

The independent commission tasked with redrawing California’s legislative and congressional boundaries each decade is supposed to be just that — independent. But the commission — which is meeting today and Wednesday in Sacramento ahead of a Dec. 27 deadline to submit final maps to the secretary of state — may not be as sheltered from political forces as its name suggests, CalMatters’ Ben Christopher and Sameea Kamal report. That’s because not all Californians who testify before the committee reveal possible conflicts of interest. A few examples:

  • Ada Briceño, who urged the commission to put in separate districts “the very different communities” of north and south coastal Orange County, described herself as a “labor organizer” — neglecting to mention she’s also chairperson of the Orange County Democratic Party.
  • A caller named “Austin” said the commission should keep both Orange County coasts in the same congressional district. Her phone number fragment and biographical description match those of Austin Eisner, whose husband Alexander is a law partner of Shawn Steel, the husband of GOP U.S. Rep. Michelle Steel — who narrowly ousted Democratic incumbent Harley Rouda in November 2020 to represent coastal Orange County.

Heightening the political stakes of the commission’s job: California losing a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in history — likely one held by a Los Angeles County Democrat. Further scrambling the political reshuffling, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass — who represents Los Angeles — formally launched her bid for Los Angeles mayor on Monday.

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CalMatters commentary

Building an “endemic” economy: California must create consistent policies for the long haul, rather than enacting arbitrary, short-term mandates, argue Rob Lapsley of the California Business Roundtable and Tracy Hernandez of the Los Angeles County Business Federation.

It’s time for a civilian climate corps: The state and federal governments must support young people who want to stay in their home communities and reverse the harm from decades of fossil fuel pollution, writes Maricruz Ramirez of Sunrise Kern County.

Other things worth your time

Podcast: Why Fresno is one of the nation’s hottest housing markets. // CalMatters

What killed Bay Area teen? Suicide follows bout with COVID. // Mercury News

Leaders grapple with Pajaro Valley’s pandemic-fueled youth violence crisis. // Lookout Local Santa Cruz

Veto pressure on Newsom mounts as ethnic studies deadline looms. // Jewish News

California’s secret war over Pentagon aid in fighting wildfires. // New York Times

Los Angeles County district attorney to dismiss 60,000 past marijuana convictions. // Los Angeles Times

California’s new misdemeanor diversion law sparks confusion, disparities in DUI cases. // Mercury News

San Francisco could foot the bill for school board recall to help cash-strapped district. // San Francisco Chronicle

Small Business Administration nominee Dilawar Syed, a California businessman, stalled from confirmation by GOP. // Washington Post

Unflattering audit of San Diego real estate deals prompts pushback from city attorney. // San Diego Union-Tribune

San Diego County gave pay raise to troubled COVID-19 hotel contractor. // inewsource

‘He held me hostage with no gun but with his words’: The phone scam gaslighting California therapists. // San Francisco Chronicle

Why California’s youth population, birth rate is decreasing. // Mercury News

Cargo piles up as California ports jostle over how to resolve delays. // Wall Street Journal

Scenic ranch near Mission San Juan Bautista preserved in land conservation deal. // Mercury News

Los Angeles luxury real estate fight: The battle over ‘The One.’ // Los Angeles Times

See you tomorrow.

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