Assembly Examines School Reopening, Senate, Distance Learning, Nov. 2, 2020

Assembly Members express equity concerns as some schools open while others remain closed. 
It was evident that members participating in the hearing were anxious to hear from the various state entities that provide guidance regarding the safe reopening of California’s schools. Present as panelists were representatives from the Department of Finance, the Legislative Analysts’ Office, CDE, and CDPH. While members were thankful to hear from these agencies, it quickly became clear that they were also frustrated with what they expressed as a lack of sufficient and consistent state guidance to assist schools to reopen. 
Several legislators noted that the overarching issue of schools reopening is quickly growing into one of equity and access. Assembly Member Phil Ting (D – San Francisco), who chairs the full Assembly Budget Committee, stated that in his district, private schools are starting to reopen, but many public schools have not. He pointed to a lack of guidance around COVID-19 testing (discussed below) as one of the chief reasons public schools are hesitating to reopen. Assembly Member Patrick O’Donnell (D – Long Beach), chair of the Assembly Education Committee, echoed those concerns, saying, “We have a glaring civil rights issue emerging in this state in that, private schools are opening, and public schools are not.” 
One member even expressed concerns that went beyond the direct equity impacts on students. Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego), who chairs the powerful Assembly Appropriations Committee, expressed her frustrations, saying “… We know that women are being disproportionately affected by children staying home, too… we have spent more time, and had I think clearer guidance on bars and movie theaters than we have on schools.” 
Clearer guidelines around testing for COVID-19 also a chief concern. 
In addition to concern over equity, members noted that a lack of clear guidance and assistance for COVID-19 testing is one of the key barriers to reopening schools. Dr. Erica Pan, the acting State Public Health Officer, was pressed by Assembly Member Ting, who asked, “… Are you starting to try to develop guidance in relation with CDE to let districts know what is considered safe testing protocols for our teachers as they start to consider going back?” She noted there is a working group examining the issue but, after a small back and forth, was unable to give a time-certain answer on when that guidance would be released. 
This raised more ire from members, with Assembly Member Ting saying, “Let me just be extraordinarily clear – your guidance may determine whether or not schools reopen… I think the answer that you have given is completely not understanding what districts and teachers need.” The discussion on testing was left open-ended, with Dr. Pan remarking, “I think we need to work together to come to an agreement on this…” Despite this olive branch, it is clear the patience of the Legislature is wearing thin. Many members of both the Assembly and Senate have expressed concern, since the onset of the pandemic several months ago, that they are not being consulted by the Administration on key decisions related to the overall COVID-19 response by the state. 
Senate looks at the challenges of distance learning. 
In addition to yesterday’s Assembly hearing, on Monday, the Senate’s Committee on Education and Select Committee on Emergency Pandemic Response held an informational hearing examining the challenges of distance learning. 
Martha Guzman Aceves, a Commissioner of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and a panelist during the hearing, expressed concern that high-speed, broadband internet access is still not considered, or treated as, a utility. She said, “… We need to govern the internet as the essential service that it is. It is a utility. This essential service needs to be regulated like one and legislated like one.” She further noted that telephone/voice providers are required to serve all the customers in a designated area – this is known as being the carrier of last resort. However, we do not require that internet providers do the same. According to the Commissioner, requiring the same for cable companies could be an expeditious way to ensure all customers have internet service available to them at an affordable rate. 
Beyond simple access, members of the committees also explored issues around current state standards for subsidized broadband internet projects, and whether those are sufficient for students to meaningfully engage in educational activities. Senator Lena Gonzalez (D – Los Angeles), who is quickly emerging as a champion on this issue, noted that the current speed standards for projects subsidized by the California Advanced Services Fund are 6 MBPS download, and 1 MBPS upload. This falls well below the current Federal standard of 25 MBPS download and 3 MBPS upload. State Superintendent Tony Thurmond, who was a panelist during the hearing and involved in the discussion around sufficiency of broadband speeds, also remarked, “…We can work with the CPUC and the Department of Transportation, we can put out a recommendation (on this issue); but without legislation or regulation, it will not have any impact.” 
Look for legislation in 2021 attempting to tackle these issues. 
Stage set for plethora of bills on school reopening and dealing with COVID-19. 
This week’s hearings were informational which, as you may recall from our previous update, means no actual policy decisions could be made. However, members may use the information and discussions from these hearings to help shape future legislative proposals around the issues mentioned above, in addition to other critical issues like mental health, student learning loss, childcare, closing the digital divide, and overall disaster/wildfire response.  
With the November 3 General Election only days away, attention will surely shift for the time being. As the dust settles on November 4 and beyond, we will provide an update on the results of key legislative races, as well as key propositions that will impact schools. In the meantime, please reach out to the partners or staff at Capitol Advisors if you need any additional information. 
Be well, 
Nick Romley
Legislative Analyst
Capitol Advisors Group