In summary

The omicron COVID variant is sweeping across California schools, forcing campuses to consider temporary closures.

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“It is so bad.”

That was Simi Valley Unified School District Superintendent Jason Peplinski’s stark assessment of the situation facing California schools as the omicron variant infects record numbers of staff and students, forcing many campuses to announce or consider temporary closures, CalMatters’ Joe Hong reports.

Peplinski’s district last week only had enough substitutes to replace about half the teachers who stayed home after testing positive for COVID. Campuses across Kern County are closing due to staff shortages. Three Oakland schools shuttered Tuesday amid the third teacher sickout in as many weeks; educators said they called in sick in solidarity with students who plan to boycott in-person classes for the rest of the week due to allegedly insufficient COVID safety protocols.

The shortage of teachers is so dire that some hard-hit high schools — including in Sacramento City, San Diego and Simi Valley Unified — are combining classes and relocating them into gyms or auditoriums, reducing learning while potentially increasing the virus’ spread, Joe reports.

There are early signs the omicron wave could soon peak in California — the state on Tuesday reported a seven-day COVID test positivity rate of 21.1%, down from a record 23.1%. But the impact on students’ education could long outlast the spike in case numbers. And omicron could also pose enduring consequences for California’s workforce — from teachers to health care employees to truck drivers — as CalMatters explores in its new series, “Sick and Tired: Omicron Overwhelms California Workers.”

Another hot-button topic in California schools: COVID vaccine mandates. At least 40 school districts are requiring or soon will require shots for staff, students, or both — and some are stricter than Gov. Gavin Newsom’s inoculation mandate, which has yet to go into effect.

But neither the California Department of Education nor any other agency is keeping track of each district’s vaccine policy. So CalMatters created the first living database of each public school district’s COVID-19 vaccine requirements. Check out this mighty effort from Stanford University student journalists Jennah Ameena Haque, Melissa Rose Newcomb and Caroline Elizabeth Ghisolfi.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 6,812,354 confirmed cases (+1.1% from previous day) and 77,306 deaths (+0.05% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 67,707,070 vaccine doses, and 72.2% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. California’s information security at risk

An abstract design of a terminal display, warning about a cyber attack. Image via iStock
Image via iStock

California can’t adequately ensure the safety of its information because of lackluster oversight from the California Department of Technology, according to a scathing state audit released Tuesday. And the possible consequences are only getting bigger: “A specific area of concern that has recently emerged for the state is the potential increase in security risks posed by widespread telework resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote Acting State Auditor Michael Tilden, who’s temporarily replacing Elaine Howle while state lawmakers tussle over recommending her possible successors to Newsom. Howle, who retired last year, was honored Tuesday by the state Assembly for leading the state auditor’s office for 21 years.

Back to the audit: Tilden found that, among other things, the Department of Technology has failed to assess the overall security status of the 108 state entities that report directly to Newsom; that it doesn’t hold them accountable for identifying potential risks or failing to perform required self-assessments; that it hasn’t set clear security guidelines for telework; and that it hasn’t updated its security and privacy policies to align with federal standards. The state Department of Technology pushed back on many of the audit’s findings, noting that it “anticipated the (cybersecurity) threat” posed by the pandemic and “immediately scaled up and supported technology based pandemic response and remote work enablement.”

For a better sense of just how big of a threat California could be facing, consider Sacramento County’s Tuesday announcement that there were 360 million unauthorized attempts to connect to county information systems in 2021 — or roughly 1 million per day.

2. Whirlwind of election news

Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced addresses the Assembly at the Capitol in Sacramento., Tuesday, May 26, 2020. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo
Assemblymember Adam Gray addresses the Assembly at the Capitol in Sacramento on May 26, 2020. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo

The triple whammy of announcements came in the space of an hour on Tuesday. At 9:57 a.m., longtime Democratic Central Valley Rep. Jerry McNerney tweeted that he won’t be seeking reelection. At 10 a.m., Democratic Rep. Josh Harder unveiled plans to run in McNerney’s newly redrawn district, instead of the seat he had originally planned to run for — and for which Democratic Assemblymember Adam Gray of Merced announced his candidacy at 11:03 a.m.

It’s the latest shakeup in California political representation as redistricting, looming term limits and other job opportunities prompt lawmakers to retire, change careers or run for other positions. For example, three state legislators — Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg, Sen. Henry Stern and Assemblymember Richard Bloom — are duking it out for a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Meanwhile, two special elections will be held Feb. 15 (and another two on April 5) to fill empty seats in the state Legislature. Feb. 15 will be a busy day for San Franciscans — not only is it the date of the primary election for candidates running to replace former Assemblymember David Chiu, who stepped down to become San Francisco’s city attorney, but it’s also the date of the primary election for city assessor-recorder and the recall election for three school board members.

3. Farmworkers’ union struggles to grow

Farmworkers harvest eggplant in a field near Fresno on Sept. 17, 2021. Photo by Eric Paul Zamora, The Fresno Bee
Farmworkers harvest eggplant in a field near Fresno on Sept. 17, 2021. Photo by Eric Paul Zamora, The Fresno Bee

United Farm Workers — the union formed by labor legends Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta — was once a powerful political force in California. But recently, the union has struggled to advance its agenda — to the extent that it failed to secure a meeting with Newsom last year over a controversial bill that would have allowed farmworkers to vote by mail in union elections, rather than in-person secret ballot elections conducted on a grower’s property. Newsom vetoed the bill, though state lawmakers are expected to reintroduce a similar proposal this year. But some question whether it would even make a difference: Researchers found in 2020 that the percentage of California farmworkers who belong to a union is statistically zero — meaning there are so few active members they fall within the margin of error. Does United Farm Workers have a future in California? CalMatters’ Melissa Montalvo and Nigel Duara take a look.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California leads — but where is it going?

California can’t afford costly health care experiment: Despite a long track record of failure, Democrats would have you believe that a government takeover of more than 10% of the state’s economy will go off without a hitch, argues Assembly Republican Leader Marie Waldron.

Help this crucial proposition get on the ballot: California needs to upgrade its water infrastructure for the 21st century and voters deserve the chance to make that happen, writes Edward Ring, lead proponent of the Water Infrastructure Funding Act.

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Other things worth your time

‘Our schools are crumbling’: How COVID, staffing problems are driving teachers away from a San Diego charter. // San Diego Union-Tribune

California offers college students $10K for public service. // Associated Press

Sports betting’s next big election battles are in California. // New York Times

Arrest made in largest EDD fraud case in Sacramento history. // Sacramento Bee

California throws more money at COVID-19 contact tracing, but is it too late? // Orange County Register

County trying to staff hundreds of empty jobs in OC Health Care Agency. // Orange County Register

Supreme Court hears Californians’ claim to painting taken by Nazis. // Los Angeles Times

California felony charges are 1st in a fatal crash involving Tesla’s Autopilot. // Associated Press

Tenderloin emergency: city opens service center, police say they won’t force those on streets to go there. // San Francisco Chronicle

Sen. Scott Wiener talks about his bill to create safe drug-use sites. // San Francisco Standard

Fremont woman killed after being pushed onto NYC subway tracks. // Mercury News

Garcetti names first female fire chief as LAFD faces harassment complaints. // Los Angeles Times

CalPERS board president Henry Jones announces resignation. // Sacramento Bee

Striking trash haulers end walkout, agree to new contract with Republic Services. // San Diego Union-Tribune

New study shows Imperial Beach ocean pollution worse than previously thought. // KPBS Public Media

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...