In summary

Gov. Newsom adds a new California vaccine mandate, saying that all healthcare workers must get booster shots against COVID-19. California State University also requires boosters for students and staff.

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As COVID roars back in California with the omicron variant, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday announced moves on three fronts to stem the winter surge.

First, to make sure hospitals can handle any increase in COVID patients, he detailed a new vaccine mandate — boosters for an estimated 2 million healthcare workers and nursing home staff, with a Feb. 1 deadline. Until then, those nurses and others who haven’t received the additional dose will be tested twice a week.  

Second, to keep schools open, Newsom said 6 million free in-home rapid tests will be sent to California schools and partner groups, enough so that all K-12 students can be checked once or twice before returning to the classroom after the holidays. In an unusual joint statement Wednesday, teachers’ unions, parents’ groups, administrators and school boards reaffirmed their commitment to in-person learning through the pandemic.  

And third, to prevent long lines seen in New York City and elsewhere, hours will be extended at some state-run testing sites among the 6,300 locations across the state.

  • Gov. Newsom: “We’re all exhausted by this. But we have something we never had in the past, and that’s the power of these life-saving vaccines and the power to boost it to get through this arguably fifth wave of this pandemic.”

The governor said the steps are necessary because while California is faring better than most other states, omicron is a growing threat, now making up more than half of all COVID cases in California. An outbreak of 16 omicron cases was traced to one workplace holiday party in Davis.

Overall, the number of daily new cases has doubled from 5,400 last week to about 11,000 this week, and the test positivity rate has jumped from 2.3% to 3.3%. 

“We can’t take anything for granted,” Newsom said at the Native American Health Center in Oakland. “I think it’s a smart move.”

California is joining New Mexico in requiring health workers to get boosters. In August, during the peak of the delta variant surge, California became the first state to require vaccinations for healthcare workers

At the time, state health officials said COVID-19 outbreaks in healthcare facilities can often be traced to unvaccinated employees, though health workers were first in line to get vaccines. In total, about 70% of all Californians are fully vaccinated, and nearly one-fourth (nearly 8.9 million people) have also received boosters.   

COVID-related hospitalizations are rising in California, to about 4,000, including nearly 1,000 in intensive care. Those numbers are far lower than during the delta surge earlier this year, and even lower than before vaccines became available. And a new pill could help prevent hospitalizations: Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the first antiviral to treat COVID at home.

At the same time, however, hospitals could still get overwhelmed, in part because the chronic staffing shortage among nurses and other healthcare workers has worsened during the pandemic.            

Newsom acknowledged that the “burnout rate is off the charts” and that it “takes a toll” on healthcare workers to see COVID patients die without loved ones at their side.

But he urged the “front-line heroes” to continue to “lead by example.”

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Tuesday, California had 4,954,130 confirmed cases (+ 0.2% from previous day) and 75,281 deaths (+ 0.15% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 63,219,988 vaccine doses, and 70.4% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. Cal State requires boosters

Signs announcing COVID-19 testing at the campus of Chico State University in Chico on Nov. 4, 2021. Photo by Julian Mendoza for CalMatters
Signs announcing COVID-19 testing at the campus of Chico State University in Chico on Nov. 4, 2021. Photo by Julian Mendoza for CalMatters

Health care workers aren’t the only group under a new vaccine mandate: The California State University announced Wednesday that it’s requiring boosters by Feb. 28 for all students, staff and faculty using its facilities and programs.

Individual campuses can set earlier deadlines, and the new policy will also be negotiated with employee unions. The nation’s largest public university system — with 477,000 students spread across 23 campuses — required vaccines before in-person classes resumed for the fall semester. But the CalMatters College Journalism Network found that the mandate was not being evenly enforced across the system.  

  • CSU Chancellor Joseph Castro: “Implementing the booster requirement now will help mitigate the potential spread of the variant on campuses as they repopulate in January after the winter break.” 

The University of California already has a similar requirement. Responding to the omicron surge, the seven UC campuses on the quarter system said Tuesday they will go to remote classes when the winter term begins in January.       

2. Did pandemic widen achievement gap?

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The pandemic has revealed some underlying problems and focused more attention on others. Consider California’s achievement gap — the longstanding differences in test scores, dropout rates and college completion among students from different backgrounds. 

While the state has tried to level the playing field, Black, Latino and poor students still lag behind. When the pandemic forced virtual classes, those same students were less likely to have the internet connections and other resources to keep up, CalMatters’ Joe Hong reports in an update of our explainer.

While grades plummeted across the board with online classes, the declines have been more precipitous among students from low-income families and English learners.

There is some hope. The Legislature and Newsom administration invested a big chunk of the unprecedented state budget surplus into public schools. That includes $5 billion over five years for after-school and summer school programs.

New penalties for bad cops

Byrhonda Lyons gives a quick rundown of California’s new law on decertifying police officers in a “New law in a minute” video.

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2021 education stories you should know

Mobile vaccination teams visited Los Angeles Unified school campuses to deliver first and second doses of the COVID-19 vaccines, as students returned to in-person classes in Los Angeles on Aug. 30, 2021. Photo by Mike Blake, Reuters
Mobile vaccination teams visited Los Angeles Unified school campuses to deliver first and second doses of the COVID-19 vaccines, as students returned to in-person classes in Los Angeles on Aug. 30, 2021. Photo by Mike Blake, Reuters

A lot happened this year in K-12 and higher education in California. Here’s a look back at some of the most significant developments, as reported by CalMatters’ Joe Hong and Mikhail Zinshteyn.

The COVID-19 pandemic continued to define California’s public education system in 2021.

Most students remained either in fully virtual or part-time in-person instruction through the spring. By fall, most students and parents eagerly welcomed the first fully in-person school year since the start of the pandemic. But as laws governing distance learning expired and were replaced by independent study as the only alternative to in-person instruction, it caused chaos for many districts as the delta variant increased cases.

In addition, the vaccine mandate for students fueled parent protests and lawsuits across the state and sparked ongoing disruptions at school board meetings where parents have been protesting mask mandates. On Dec. 8, Gov. Gavin Newsom suggested that school districts should adjust their vaccine mandates to avoid kicking thousands of students out of classrooms. Days later, L.A. Unified delayed its mandate until the fall of 2022.

Newsom and state lawmakers worked to soften the impact of the pandemic with a record $123.9 billion K-12 education budget that gave special attention to high-needs students, special education programs and early childhood education. 

  • Jenny Hontz, communications director for Speak Up, a Los Angeles-based parent advocacy group: “We know online learning was not ideal, particularly for our most vulnerable students. There’s gonna be a huge deficit to make up in the next couple years.”

California didn’t avoid the classroom culture wars. Republican candidates in the gubernatorial recall amplified some parents’ concerns on the teaching of “critical race theory.” And a new curriculum designed to help more students do well in science, technology, engineering and math was blasted by critics as “woke” math

More in-person classes and more money also defined public higher education in California. 

In-person instruction returned in 2021 for most University of California and nearly two-thirds of California State University courses. But the two massive systems enforced vaccine requirements differently. While the UC made its announcement nearly two months before fall classes, CSU issued its decision just a few weeks before, meaning some students were on campus and still unvaccinated

But the surging omicron variant is forcing seven UC campuses that operate on the quarter system to return to remote instruction when classes resume Jan. 3. UCLA, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara and UC Santa Cruz will be remote the first two weeks, while at UC Davis the first week of classes will be online.  

Financially, public higher ed bounced back from a bleak 2020. In 2021, college operations and financial aid received $3.3 billion more in the general and a whopping $47 billion in total funds. Since the overall state budget also grew substantially, however, higher education actually received a smaller than usual share of the general fund. 

Also, $2 billion for student housing will build just a small percentage of what the UC, CSU and community colleges need to provide affordable living quarters for hundreds of thousands of needy students. That shortfall could be worsened by as many as 3,000 students because Cal State misread the fine print of the program. 

President Joe Biden extended the pause on student loan repayments from Feb. 1 through May 1, citing the COVID pandemic. That’s a big deal for California students.      

The year also brought some steps to help the finances of instructors. UC lecturers had been fighting for a new labor contract that includes job protections and other changes meant to reduce the high rate of churn. After two years of toil, the union of 6,000 lecturers threatened to strike, but settled in November. In December, the UC recognized a union of 17,000 student researchers, staving off a labor disruption that could have imperiled $5 billion in research funding.

Check out the full CalMatters Primer, with everything you need to know and might have missed about California policy and politics in 2021. 

Here’s your primer: What California state government has been up to in 2021

History will remember 2021 as the year when a windfall of governmentspending sought to address years of inequality, poverty and a growingpopulation left behind. Trillions of dollars were spent by the federal government, but California’s state government, facing the nation’s highest poverty rate, also saw an unprecedented budget surplus that the state’s supermajority Democrats used…

And here’s a peek at what to watch for on education in 2022:

Other things worth your time

Family of man who died of COVID after wife’s work exposure can sue company // San Francisco Chronicle

Bay Area restaurants are among first in U.S. to mandate boosters for indoor dining // San Francisco Chronicle

Coronavirus devastated S.F. retail, but a new landlord vacancy tax is still starting // San Francisco Chronicle

What’s it like to live next to America’s largest port amid a global supply chain crisis // The New York Times

The new get-rich-faster job in Silicon Valley: Crypto start-ups // The New York Times

What I saw at the Theranos trial: long lines, superfans and the enduring power of Elizabeth Holmes // The Guardian

U.S. investigates Tesla letting drivers play video games // Los Angeles Times

This Northern California town was the most popular on Zillow in 2021 // San Francisco Chronicle

Judge clears federal transit grants amid pension fight // The Sacramento Bee

L.A. races to distribute housing vouchers to homeless people // Los Angeles Times

Two arrested, third person identified in Oakland killing of TV crew’s security guard // San Francisco Chronicle

Santee man honored with Carnegie Medal for heroic beach rescue // The San Diego Union-Tribune

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Foon Rhee is deputy editor for CalMatters who works with reporters covering the state Capitol and housing. After graduating from Duke University, he covered local and state government for The Charlotte...