(CALMATTERS) – School reopenings will likely take center stage in 2021 as one of California’s biggest political battles.

A special education pre-k class at Lu Sutton Elementary school in Novato on Oct. 27, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

It’s a battle all the more noteworthy because it pits two groups that are often allies — unions and Democratic lawmakers — against each other. This week, the state’s two largest teachers unions — the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers — publicly opposed a bill introduced by eight Democratic lawmakers that could force schools to reopen in March. The unions’ decision to come out against the bill in December, several weeks before legislators return to Sacramento, was unusual — and an indication of their intent to halt it in its tracks.

CFT President Jeff Freitas: We “ask that science and community safety, not political pressure, be the guiding force in any discussion about reopening our schools to in-person instruction.”

Patrick O’Donnell, a bill co-author and Long Beach Democrat: “We don’t want to get to a point where schools have sat on their hands for 12 months.”

It’s also a thorny political situation for Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is under increasing pressure to get students back into the classroom as he faces a make-or-break point in his career and fends off a growing recall movement. Newsom is apparently amenable to working with lawmakers on the bill, though he risks alienating two powerful unions that spent nearly $1.5 million to help elect him in 2018.

Next year will also be pivotal in determining the direction of the state’s pandemic response. Several recent rulings have called into question the legality of Newsom’s shelter-in-place restrictions, raising the possibility that limitations on outdoor dining and other businesses may not survive. But some labor groups are calling for even stricter shutdowns, pointing to a sustained surge in hospitalizations that has overwhelmed ICUs and resulted in a record number of deaths for four straight days.