That’s one of the buzzwords that will likely dominate conversation in California’s capitol next month, when state lawmakers return to Sacramento to consider, among other things, possible legislation to remove the personal belief exemption from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s student COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Stressed school leaders have mixed feelings about that, with some warning it could push thousands of kids — disproportionately from underserved communities — out of the classroom and into remote learning, widening an educational achievement gap that only grew during the pandemic.

That it could take a while for many students to bounce back from remote learning was evident in a wrenching Washington Post profile of three students at Burton High School in San Francisco. Am’Brianna Daniels, a senior who describes high school as her ticket to college and college as her ticket out of poverty, is struggling to keep up with her workload after the disruption and depression she experienced during nearly two years of online learning. Despite dropping two of her advanced placement classes, she says she’s still “so far behind on work, missing assignments everywhere.”

Some of California’s largest school districts — including Los Angeles Unified, Oakland Unified, San Diego Unified and Sacramento City Unified — are launching a new strategy to improve high schoolers’ chances of getting into the UC and CSU systems after the roller coaster of remote learning, EdSource reports. The plan: Drop D and F grades and promote a style of education called mastery-based learning.

It’s a debate similar to the one surrounding California’s controversial new math framework, which proposes — among other things — delaying Algebra 1 until 9th grade to lower the number of Black, Latino and low-income students failing the class in 8th grade. San Francisco Unified has had the policy in place since 2014, and although the district says it’s resulted in fewer students across all demographics failing Algebra 1, CalMatters’ Joe Hong found that standardized test data paints a more complicated picture.

For example, at O’Connell High School — which enrolled the highest percentage of Black students among the district’s comprehensive high schools in the 2018-19 school year — just 6% of Black students met math standards in the 2014-15 school year. That dropped to 0% in 2018-19.

The UC last month said it will no longer require any standardized tests in its admissions process, noting that exams like the SAT and ACT may give a leg up to wealthier students whose families can afford pricey test preparation. But, as Joe reports, some San Francisco Unified families are paying for extra math classes so their kids can take AP Calculus by senior year and potentially have a better chance of getting into the college of their choice.

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Saturday, California had 4,822,889 confirmed cases (+0.2% from previous day) and 74,046 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 59,643,525 vaccine doses, and 68.4% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

1. State, nursing homes embroiled in lawsuits

Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock

Maggots crawling around an elderly man’s feeding tube. A mentally impaired woman being sexually assaulted by another patient. A resident repeatedly stabbing himself in the neck. A resident choking on a medicine cup. These are among the alleged lapses in patient care for which the California Department of Public Health has cited and fined a Los Angeles nursing home in the past four years — prompting the Longwood Manor Convalescent Home to sue the state four times in the past 18 months to overturn the fines and violations, according to an investigation from CalMatters’ Barbara Feder Ostrov. The Longwood case illuminates California’s unusual requirement that nursing homes seeking to challenge citations must do so by suing in civil court — a lengthy and costly process that advocates say incentivizes the state to settle lawsuits, allows nursing homes to avoid the steepest penalties and fails to protect patients.

Among the key findings of Barbara’s investigation:

  • California has issued more than 3,000 nursing home citations since 2016 — and reduced sanctions in more than 600 of those cases.
  • During the same period, nursing homes filed at least 433 appeals against the state, including more than 60% of citations involving a patient death.
  • Between 2016 and 2020, California downgraded and reduced fines of 14 of 45 citations involving a resident’s death after nursing homes sued.
  • About 25% of the roughly $23.3 million in fines California has levied on skilled nursing facilities since 2016 remains unpaid.

2. California COVID update

Alameda County health workers prepare syringes with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during a distribution clinic at St. Rose hospital in Hayward on Jan. 27, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
Health workers prepare syringes with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at St. Rose hospital in Hayward on Jan. 27, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

The omicron variant continues to make its way through California: On Friday, Alameda County public health officers confirmed its presence in five of 12 residents who tested positive for COVID-19 in the wake of a late November wedding in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Marin County health officers are considering levying a fine or misdemeanor charges against a couple who knowingly sent their COVID-positive child and sibling to school, resulting in an outbreak that infected eight kids and forced another 75 to quarantine. And COVID is running so rampant in San Diego County jails that the sheriff’s department recently ordered a systemwide lockdown, citing 125 new cases in the past week and two inmate deaths potentially caused by the outbreak.

The news comes amid an ongoing battle over vaccine mandates: A federal appeals court on Saturday lifted its temporary ban on San Diego Unified’s student vaccine mandate, the result of the school district removing a clause that prompted the temporary block. And on Friday, a superior court judge denied the Los Angeles Fire Department union’s request to delay enforcement of the city’s vaccine mandate, meaning that roughly 400 unvaccinated firefighters could be put on unpaid leave by the end of the month. In San Diego, at least 160 unvaccinated police officers risk termination; meanwhile, more than three dozen health care workers sued Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego, alleging the medical center didn’t thoroughly consider their applications for religious exemptions. And some Contra Costa County supervisors are pledging to reverse their own health department’s decision to not crack down on restaurants that allegedly aren’t verifying customers’ vaccination status.

  • Supervisor Karen Mitchoff: “I can assure you that we are not slacking off on citations. Citations that need to be made will be made.”

3. Crime poses political conundrum

Newsom, left, and Attorney General Bonta, right, at International Hotel Manilatown Center on March 24, 2021 in San Francisco. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Friday the sentencing of five defendants arrested in September 2020 for scheming to resell millions of dollars worth of goods stolen from Target, CVS, Walgreens and other stores — but that’s unlikely to placate prosecutors and business owners who say California needs tougher retail theft laws. Case in point: Republican lawyer Thomas Hiltachk recently filed a proposed ballot measure that would require anyone convicted two or more times for “brazen retail theft, auto theft, porch piracy, and other similar crimes” to be incarcerated for up to one year, “no exceptions, no excuses.” Meanwhile, crime continues to dominate the headlines: A San Francisco Chronicle photographer was robbed at gunpoint Friday while on assignment in West Oakland; men stole two diamond Rolex watches, an iPhone and at least $2,000 in cash in a Friday morning follow-home robbery in Valley Village; a San Francisco Safeway has installed security gates and other physical barriers to deter shoplifting; and Torrance police this weekend warned the public to watch out for robbers posing as landscapers or gardeners who appear to be targeting Asian American homeowners.

In other criminal justice news, the influential but little-known Committee on Revision of the Penal Code — which recently saw Newsom sign six of its proposals into law — has issued a new report calling on California to abolish the death penalty and characterizing its capital punishment system as “beyond repair.” The committee also recommended that Bonta reduce some inmates’ death sentences to life in prison and urged Newsom to use his clemency power to commute some sentences to prison terms.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: The economic comeback Newsom often touts isn’t happening in California, but rather in states like Nebraska.

Another way to reform California’s recall process: A ranked choice voting system would result in a more accurate reflection of people’s preferences, argues Michael Feinstein, co-founder of the Green Party of California.

Solving California’s teacher shortage: Here are a few actions state lawmakers can take to help school districts fill vacant positions, writes Nick Melvoin, vice president of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Other things worth your time

Podcast: California homeless: Is right to housing a solution? // CalMatters

Sausalito police arrest freelance journalist covering homelessness. // Pacific Sun

A Black couple ‘erased themselves’ from their home to see if the appraised value would go up. It did — by nearly $500,000. // San Francisco Chronicle

San Jose considers ending single-family zoning in historic neighborhoods. // Mercury News

60 years after being taken for abandoned Los Angeles freeway, homes may get new life. // Los Angeles Times

Nevada, California governors plan a fix for I-15 congestion. // Associated Press

Supreme court case prompts California lawmaker to share her abortion experience. // The Guardian

California official says women on boards law is toothless. // Associated Press

Newsom asked to prevent ICE from detaining a domestic violence survivor. // Fresno Bee

Large warehouse fire source of lingering stench in California town, investigation finds. // CBS News

Crude reality: One state consumes half the oil from the Amazon rainforest. // NBC News

Photos: How Hetch Hetchy Valley went from natural paradise to concrete basin. // San Francisco Chronicle

Biden administration moves to scrap Cadiz water pipeline right-of-way permit, cleared by Trump. // Los Angeles Times

Will Lake Tahoe home attack lead to more California bear killings? // Sacramento Bee

Murders of crows are taking over the Bay Area. // SFGATE

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...