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Next month, California’s first-in-the-nation reparations task force is set to debate who should be eligible for direct payments proposed as a way to compensate African Americans for slavery and its lingering effects.

In a sign of just how controversial that decision could be, the nine-member committee voted 5-4 Thursday to delay the conversation until March, reports Lil Kalish, who recently joined CalMatters’ California Divide project.

One key sticking point for the task force — which is expected to issue a report in June 2023 recommending ways in which California might formally make reparations to the Black community — is whether payments should be prioritized for direct descendants of enslaved people.

  • San Diego Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe: “We have to deal with the direct harm that occurred to the enslaved.”
  • Dr. Cheryl Grills, a psychology professor at Loyola Marymount University: “How will we possibly be setting people up to be left out of reparations because they cannot establish that lineage? We’re going to reduce ourselves yet again to the masters’ tools.”

The backdrop of the task force’s meeting: a pandemic that continues to disproportionately ravage communities of color — particularly Black and Pacific Islander Californians, CalMatters’ Kristen Hwang reports. Her stunning story found that:

  • Black Californians have the lowest vaccination rate in the state at 55%.
  • The rate of Black Californians dying from COVID-19 has increased tenfold since last summer, from one death per 100,000 people last July to 10.4 deaths this week. That surpasses all races except Pacific Islanders, who are dying at the rate of 14.7 per 100,000, according to state data.
  • Black children are the second most likely to die from COVID among Californians younger than 18, with a rate of 1.2 deaths per 100,000. Pacific Islander kids are twice as likely to die from COVID as Black children, while all other races have less than one COVID-19 death per 100,000 children.
  • Dr. Kim Rhoads, a UCSF associate professor of epidemiology: “It’s about a historical relationship between Black people and public health and health care. Instead of saying lack of trust, I’m saying there’s no relationship there, so there should be no expectation of trust.”

Lack of trust was also visible in a poll released Thursday by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and the Los Angeles Times: 50% of Latino parents and 43% of Black parents said they aren’t confident their children are safe from COVID at school, compared to 38% of Asian American parents and 26% of white parents.

  • And 82% of Black registered voters said they approve of school mask mandates — the highest percentage of any racial group surveyed.

In other education news: The University of California announced Thursday that it received a record 210,840 first-year applications for the fall semester. Applications from Black students have increased at a faster rate than those of any other racial group, growing 25% systemwide over the past two years and even faster at the two most competitive campuses, UC Berkeley (57%) and UCLA (47%), the Los Angeles Times reports.

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Wednesday, California had 8,349,967 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 83,784 deaths (+0.3% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 71,356,298 vaccine doses, and 73.6% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

1. School mask wars keep escalating

Parents and supporters protest school mask mandates in front of San Marcos High School in San Marcos on Feb. 22, 2022. Photo by Eduardo Contreras, The San Diego Union-Tribune)
Parents protest school mask mandates in front of San Marcos High School on Feb. 22, 2022. Photo by Eduardo Contreras, The San Diego Union-Tribune

The UC Berkeley poll also found that 61% of California parents with school-age children approve of school mask mandates and 55% support requiring the COVID vaccine for students once it’s fully approved by federal regulators — but those majorities belie deep political divides. About 70% of Republicans oppose vaccine and mask mandates while about 85% of Democrats support them, the survey found.

The latest example of the stark divide over masks: Nevada Joint Union High School District shut down Thursday after many teachers called out sick in response to the school board violating a labor agreement by making masks optional for students. At least 26 districts have stopped enforcing state mask laws, according to a list maintained by the advocacy group Reopen California Schools.

Other key COVID updates:

2. CA feels ripple effects from Russian invasion

Ukrainian supporters demonstrate after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, in Los Angeles on February 24, 2022. Photo by Ringo Chiu, Reuters
Ukrainian supporters demonstrate in Los Angeles on Feb. 24, 2022 after Russia invaded Ukraine. Photo by Ringo Chiu, Reuters

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent shock waves Thursday throughout the nation and California, which the U.S. Census Bureau estimates is home to roughly 112,000 people of Ukrainian descent. Hundreds of people protested the invasion and held vigils for Ukrainians in cities including Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco, while Californians frantically called family members in Ukraine and companies with workers based there prepared contingency plans to protect their employees. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden imposed sanctions on Russia and California elected officials condemned the attacks, which Gov. Gavin Newsom called “an armed attempt to overthrow a sitting democracy.”

The invasion will also likely set off a cascade of economic effects in California, raising the price of everything from wheat to COVID test kits, sparking concerns of cyberattacks and pushing gas prices through the roof. A gallon of gas cost a record average of $4.77 in California on Thursday, according to AAA — a trend that could push state lawmakers to reconsider their aversion to Newsom’s proposal to suspend a scheduled increase to California’s gas tax.

  • Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Lakewood Democrat, told CalMatters’ Sameea Kamal in a Thursday statement: “My thoughts at this moment are limited to the toll on the people of Ukraine. California’s budget process is ongoing, and the Assembly still assessing proposals on how best to support Californians.”

For more, check out this powerful, poignant Twitter thread and this essay for Jewish Telegraph Agency from CalMatters higher-education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn, who was born in Kyiv.

CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California Democrats have imposed unnecessary misery on working families, a group they purport to value.

Lack of state funding an impediment to housing production: When cities are required to plan for eight years of housing, it’s reasonable to ask the state to commit to at least eight years of funding to support the implementation of those plans, writes Carolyn Coleman, executive director and CEO of the League of California Cities.

California needs more water storage, not more bureaucracy: Water laws are not the cause of our changing weather patterns, and legal wrangling will not alter what scientists tell us will be continuing boom-and-bust water cycles, argues Mark McKean of the California Farm Water Coalition.

Other things worth your time

Rape survivors, child victims, consensual sex partners: San Francisco police have used DNA from all of them for 7 years. // USA Today

Oakland mayor: Defund the police push went ‘too far.’ // Politico

California lawmaker warns against THC limits for drivers. // Sacramento Bee

Families say the school district is cutting AP classes, with Lowell taking the biggest hit. // San Francisco Chronicle

Los Angeles is paying $600,000 apiece for units to house homeless people. // Bloomberg

A wedding or a house? One couple made their choice in the San Fernando Valley. // New York Times

Los Angeles must add more than 250,000 homes to zoning plan by October, state rules. // Los Angeles Times

‘People are dying’: Fatal encampment fire provokes outcry over homelessness crisis. // San Francisco Chronicle

A journalist is suing Sausalito for $21 million, saying its police were racially motivated and violated press freedom laws. // San Francisco Chronicle

State charges allege Southern California hospice care fraud. // Associated Press

McDonald’s franchisee to pay $26,000 for child-labor violations at 3 Santa Ana eateries. // Orange County Register

Woman fatally hit by VTA bus; was denied boarding over mask. // Mercury News

San Diego’s infrastructure funding gap soars past $4B, more than doubling in just three years. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Consultant warned of red flags with energy project years before $20 million embezzlement. // Orange County Register

Key hearing on Poseidon desalination plant delayed two months. // Orange County Register

Los Angeles police union backs Caruso for mayor, spurning former LAPD officer Buscaino. // Los Angeles Times

Rick Gentry resigns as head of San Diego Housing Commission. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Judge bars Herb Wesson from returning to City Hall. // Los Angeles Times

49ers-Santa Clara feud rises again: Mayor says team wants to oust city manager. // San Francisco Chronicle

Anger surfaces at SDSU over rule requiring faculty to include Kumeyaay statement in syllabi. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Bakersfield experienced worst dip in air quality of all mid-sized metros in 2020. // Bakersfield Californian

Study: California wildfires growing more intense, flammable at night. // Sacramento Bee

The return of California’s tule fog. // Los Angeles Times

See you Monday.

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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...