California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) should be riding high. The late autumn/early winter covid-19 surge is falling so rapidly that case numbers have declined by more than half since last month. The state’s vaccine program, which suffered a slow and confusing rollout, is now on track — more than 5 million people in the state have received at least one shot since the beginning of the year. Restaurants are permitted to open once again for outdoor dining, and good luck to you getting a reservation on a Saturday night.

But instead of spiking, Newsom’s approval numbers are falling. His dinner with lobbyists at the French Laundry is clearly turning into one of the costliest meals in U.S. political history. Small business owners and restaurant proprietors are furious at his on-again, off-again lockdowns.

But perhaps most damningly for Newsom, large numbers of schools in the state remain closed to in-person learning despite improvements in covid-19 prevalence and precautions. Teachers in many districts are resistant to returning to the classroom; the latest demand is that all teachers receive access to coronavirus vaccines before returning to in-person learning.

As a result of all this discontent, a recall petition — once thought of as a right-wing lost cause — continues to pick up momentum as it approaches its March 17 deadline to submit nearly 1.5 million signatures. It’s looking increasingly likely that Newsom will face the voters before the end of the year. And while many political analysts think it’s unlikely he’ll lose such an election, it’s worth remembering that’s what they are saying now. There are no certainties.

Newsom needs to seize control of his narrative. And getting the schools open and forcefully taking on those blocking that goal is the exact way to do it.

Let’s be clear: The evidence is mounting by the day that school closure is an ongoing catastrophe for kids and their families. Remote education is a failure, a pale shadow of the learning children would receive in-person. Mental distress among school-age kids is sharply up. Mothers of elementary-school children are finding it hard to maintain paid work and perform as unpaid teacher’s aides. The learning losses and economic consequences will almost certainly haunt us for decades.

But the state’s politically powerful teachers unions say it’s too dangerous to reopen for indoor learning. They are backed by many state Democratic politicians, who are pushing a reopening plan that’s tougher than the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards — which themselves are thought by many to discourage full reopening.

A statement released Monday by the United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing teachers in the second-largest school district in the United States, claimed that reopening for in-person learning would result in “putting families at risk of illness and death.” In other words, if you want the schools open, you are sticking it to granny.

This is playing dirty and dishonest. It’s increasingly clear that schools can be reopened safely — as they are in large swaths of the country. To pretend otherwise is to indulge in pandemic panic, while putting the fears of teachers above that of the welfare of the children they are paid to teach.

The situation is getting increasingly contentious, scrambling traditional alliances and loyalties and fueling anger across California. Last week, a school board in Northern California resigned en masse after getting caught on a hot mic bashing parents pleading for a reopening by claiming “they want their babysitters back” so they could have more free time to do cannabis.

No surprise, parents are increasingly furious. Two hundred protested in West LA — hardly a right-wing bastion — on Monday. The usually far-left publication the Nation — the Nation! — published a piece this weekend excoriating both unions and West Coast governors for failing to prioritize school reopenings.

Education is, for the most part, a local issue, subject to local control. Newsom has a bully pulpit. He has tried to talk tough in private, but in public, it’s something else. Yes, Newsom says schools need to reopen, but he’s measured and mannered. In our time of overheated rhetoric, that’s admirable. But in this case it’s also counterproductive.

The California schools situation increasingly reeks of contempt — for Newsom, for parents and, most important, for the children. The time for polite jawboning is long past. Newsom, frankly, looks weak and ineffectual. That’s a bad look for any elected official, but that goes double and triple for one facing a recall. If he doesn’t call this situation out for what it is, he’s increasing the chances that voters will call him out when they finally get the chance.

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