The Teacher Handshake

by Michael Trujillo
Friday, March 12, 2021
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For many months in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was panic at California’s local grocery stores. While most businesses were closed, government buildings locked up, and schools shut down, our markets never were. Neither were our farms. Our survival depended, as it always has, on food continuing to be grown, picked, and shipped to stores where we could buy it. 

The people who keep our food supply chain running—clerks at supermarket chains and strip-mall mini-markets; the farmworkers who grow and pick our produce and raise our chickens, cows, and pigs—haven’t had the luxury of working from home. Those workers represent ethnic groups from around the globe, but here in California they are overwhelmingly Latino

We Latinos kept California fed while it Zoomed its important business deals. Kept it nourished as it sprayed Clorox on its Amazon packages. Latinos have done our part, in many cases risking our health and even our lives, to prevent this pandemic from sowing unfathomable destruction. Now we are asking California leaders to honor our contributions and to have the courage to do right by us—not for our sakes, but for our kids’. 

Recently Governor Newsom announced that the state is setting aside a percentage of vaccines for teachers. I, like everyone else, applauded this move at first, assuming it meant our schools would open as soon as possible. The whole point of moving teachers to the front of the line, after all, is to enable them to return to work so California’s students—the majority of whom are Latino—can resume learning in person.

At least, that’s what I thought. But we’re learning that the policies guiding vaccine distribution, like almost every other issue that impacts our lives, are infected by politics. Teachers might be getting vaccinated before most of us, but that doesn’t mean they are willing to go back to work. Nope, many of the state’s most powerful teachers ‘unions have successfully lobbied for priority vaccinations but at the same time have refused to go back to teaching in person once those vaccinations are completed. 

More than 6 million kids across California have spent nearly twelve months away from their classrooms, losing invaluable instruction and in many cases accumulating emotional scars. Meanwhile, many of their parents have been laboring at farms and in grocery stores since the pandemic began, without the protection of a vaccine. Latinos make up more than half of the state’s COVID-19 cases and have the greatest share of cases and deaths in every age group, except among ages eighty and up. The sacrifice is immeasurable.

But that sacrifice doesn’t seem to register inside the sprawling, $3.7 million, six-bedroom estate that Governor Newsom bought a couple years ago. The governor is allowing those with political power and influence to climb the vaccine distribution ladder, while those without are stuck at the back of the line. In many ways, it’s business as usual. But after a year in which Latinos and communities of color have borne the brunt of this virus, it is downright shameful for the governor to let political capital determine who gets vaccinated first.

For every teacher who gets vaccinated and then decides not to go back and teach students of color, there is someone else who actually needed that vaccine and didn’t get it. It might be a grocery store worker or a cancer survivor. Governor Newsom has a moral and ethical obligation to ensure that groups receiving priority vaccinations are either acutely vulnerable or actually contributing to the public good. Not in some hypothetical future, but now.

In a few years, academics and researchers are going to be writing about the “distanced generation” that lacks the skills necessary to be successful. We will all grow accustomed to stories of children who never returned to school, disappearing forever into an abyss of financial, intellectual, and emotional paralysis and despair.

We already know from every longitudinal story ever done on education that a high-quality academic experience leads to a more successful life—one less likely to be interrupted by crime, less likely to result in homelessness, and more likely to yield a healthy income and homeownership. Every major feature of the lives to which we aspire, and the lives that we want for our children, is directly tied to the quality of education we provide. It is telling that every teachers’ union has long insisted that an in-person education is absolutely critical for students’ learning and personal growth. 

As the movement to recall Governor Newsom grows, with a measure likely to go before voters before the end of this year, Californians will decide Newsom’s political future based on one simple question: Is California back to normal and on the road to recovery? For many families, the answer will come down to whether or not their schools have reopened.

Pressure is mounting from communities across the state for the reopening of our schools. If the governor fails to get California’s kids back into classrooms soon, he could pay a heavy price at the ballot box.

Doing so would require challenging the deceptive rhetoric and unreasonable demands of the state’s most aggressive teachers’ unions. For example, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) has outlined the conditions they deem necessary for their members to return to partial in-person learning, or hybrid instruction. Those conditions include a “wealth tax” on rich Californians and genome sequencing by the school district.

Perhaps many Californians would indeed like to see a tax increase on our state’s wealthiest residents. And it’s important to conduct genome sequencing on patients who test positive for COVID-19 in order to identify new variants and help curb the virus’s spread. But holding our students hostage until these Herculean feats occur would be irresponsible and ridiculous.

To meet UTLA’s demands, the LA Unified School District would first have to develop the capacity to conduct genome sequencing. We’re talking about a school district that has not yet figured out how to install air conditioning in all of its schools. This is a school district that provided me, when I was a student, with the same exact textbook that it had given to my mother when she was a student. How do I know? Because her name was on the inside cover.     

Demanding that school districts figure out how to examine DNA before resuming classroom instruction is outrageous. Our governor should publicly say so. He should take the necessary steps to reopen schools so that millions of children are no longer deprived of one of their most basic needs and rights.

Governor Newsom campaigned as a progressive in what is arguably the country’s most progressive state. He asked voters to grant him the immense responsibility of leadership, and we did. A year into this pandemic, it’s time for him to start being a leader. Otherwise, we risk losing an entire generation of Brown and Black young people.

And Governor Newsom’s legacy? It will be the sons and daughters of farmworkers and grocery store clerks who not only failed to become engineers or doctors but ended up as something far more cruel: forgotten Californians. 

Michael Trujillo is a Democratic strategist and vice president of Bryson Gillette.