Alex Guel, a second-grade student at Discovery Elementary School, works on her class assignment at home. Her mother, Aurora Guel, is leading efforts to reopen schools in the San Marcos Unified School District. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez’s bill to address learning loss suffered by students learning virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic has had some ups and downs: When she first introduced the measure, she told VOSD, “No one wants me to do this bill.” But by April, it had passed the Assembly unanimously. Since then, it’s been stuck in limbo in the Senate, and hasn’t yet been referred to a policy committee for a hearing. It would still likely need three to four more votes before it makes it to the governor’s desk. And Gonzalez is worried the bill is running out of time to have a meaningful impact.

Why the rush?

The bill has an urgency clause, meaning it would take effect immediately upon being signed by the governor. That’s important because it also has provisions that would require school districts to notify parents by June 15 that they can request their child be retained in their current grade level for the 2021-2022 school year, and requires those districts to decide on the requests by July 15.

Some school districts, including Sweetwater Union High School District in Gonzalez’s district, will begin the 2021-2022 school year as early as July – so decisions must be made soon.

The bill would also require schools to change grades from a letter grade to a pass/no pass grade at parents’ request – if doing so wouldn’t negatively impact the student’s GPA, and would provide students credit recovery options, including the ability to complete a fifth year of high school in order to meet graduate requirements if they’re now behind schedule due to COVID-19.

Gonzalez said the “retention” part of the bill – the provisions that would require schools and districts to create temporary policies to facilitate students repeating their grade level – continues to generate controversy and she believes it’s why the bill has stalled in the Senate.

Indeed, “there’s often this stigma of being held back and that stigma should not be as significant now,” Douglas Harris, a prominent education researcher at Tulane University, told VOSD in December. “Everybody lost something this year.”

Gonzalez agrees that the pandemic was a unique disruption that requires a new approach.

“Bottom line is, we’ve just never had a pandemic. We’d never had a situation where nobody but the parents can tell you if their kid was actually even watching the Zoom,” she said.

Gonzalez said she’s heard from countless parents who believe the bill is necessary to address the devastating impacts of distance learning, but she wishes she’d done a better job communicating that impact to lawmakers and people who don’t have school-aged children.

She said the current language in the bill isn’t as strong as she’d hoped, but at this point “I’ll get excited if we can get something through.”

Meanwhile, “70% of parents in the six county greater Sacramento area said they were concerned that their kids are falling behind in school,” a Valley Vision and Cap Radio poll found.

Research from Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE, “shows significant impacts to learning related to the COVID-19 school disruptions, with a larger effect among low income and English learner students,” according to an analysis of the learning loss bill.

“This crisis in public education is completely unprecedented,” PACE Executive Director Heather Hough told Cap Radio. “We don’t really know how long it will take [to catch kids up]. But the idea is that it has to be aggressive, and it has to be now.”

Scrutiny of Police Use-of-Force Law Builds

When then-Assemblywoman Shirley Weber passed AB 392, a bill changing the standards for when police can deploy deadly force, it was heralded as a big victory.

A year earlier, police unions had blanketed radio airwaves with ads attacking the measure, and it got put on hold. By the time AB 392 passed, those unions had dropped their opposition and police unions even donated to Weber’s political campaign.

Now scrutiny is emerging over whether the compromises that secured the unions’ support went too far, and made the bill less effective.

That scrutiny emerged over the last year in the San Diego mayor’s race, in which the two Democratic candidates sparred over the measure, and in the race to replace Weber in the Assembly after she was elevated to secretary of state.

A new CalMatters analysis shows that beyond two cases recently charged under the law, “the available evidence so far suggests that the new law has not been as transformative as supporters hoped when they pushed the so-called Act to Save Lives through the Legislature. Nor has the training law led to widespread, state-certified instruction for officers on the new standard for using deadly force.” Police shootings in California, meanwhile, have increased.  The Union-Tribune reports that San Diego’s largest law enforcement agencies appear to be in compliance with the law’s requirements for new trainings.

Resentment over whether the bill was compromised became an issue in the San Diego mayor’s race, when then-Councilwoman Barbara Bry said she supported the law before it was “watered down” to gain police unions’ support.

“Assemblyman Gloria supported it ONLY after the police unions signed off on the revisions,” Bry wrote. “In other words, after it was safe to do so, as he usually does.”

Weber, however, said then-Assemblyman Todd Gloria, who ultimately won the race, was a true champion of the measure.

Yet Bry wasn’t the only Democrat to express wariness that police had too much influence in shaping the law. In the race to replace Weber in the Assembly, several Democratic candidates said they wouldn’t accept money from police unions.

In one debate hosted by criminal justice advocacy group Pillars of the Community, the group’s leader, Khalid Alexander, seemed to be directly taking aim at AB 392.

“In the electoral process, a lot of the time we have bills that come up to the Assembly and through the Senate that can actually make a huge impact in the everyday lives of people who have either been incarcerated or whose families have been impacted by incarceration, but somewhere along the process the elected officials who run for us begin to kinda negotiate, change the wording, twist it around. So what once was a strong bill that could have actually impacted people ends up being in many instances a symbolic bill.”

Alexander told VOSD this week that he wasn’t referring to AB 392 and didn’t want to point fingers at specific pieces of legislation.

Anyone wondering about the reach and impact of the law should keep an eye on two Southern California cases.

In one, two San Clemente deputies accost a Black man for allegedly jaywalking. In video captured by bystanders, the man repeatedly asks officers to stop touching him, they shove him and tackle him and eventually shoot him, killing the man.

The Orange County district attorney’s office told Voice of San Diego this week that it has not yet finished its investigation of the incident.

The other case that will present a test for prosecutors involves a San Diego Police Department officer who shot a homeless man who was eating food. After an officer asks the man about a knife in his pocket, he grabbed the knife and dropped it to the ground. Officers shot him as he dropped it.

Steve Walker, a spokesman for San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan, said the office has not yet received the investigation of the incident.

Golden State News

Sofía Mejías Pascoe and Jesse Marx contributed to this report.

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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