Credit: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Polaris
Students at Irvine High School exit classrooms as in-person classes continue in December. Irvine Unified opened classrooms with a hybrid learning model in September.

Looking beyond the state-ordered Covid lockdown that has shut down all but essential services in all but a handful of counties in California, three Democratic Assembly leaders proposed legislation Monday that would require public school students to physically return to school in stages by early spring, after public health officials lift closure orders.

The effect would be to start reopening schools for at least the most struggling or perhaps the youngest students when their counties move from the most restrictive purple tier, where 99% of school districts are now, to any less restrictive color: red, orange or yellow.

Assembly Bill 10, which has not yet been electronically posted, signals the growing impatience of parents and some legislators that schools have been slow to reopen to in-person instruction and have ignored the needs of low-income students and English learners who have foundered under distance learning. There is new evidence that persistent gaps in learning between those students and others have grown during the pandemic (see here and here).

The three lead authors of AB 10 are Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, chair of the Assembly Budget Committee; Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, chair of the Assembly Education Committee, and Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, chair of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance. All are fathers of students in public schools and have expressed frustration over limitations of online instruction. Other joint authors are Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, chair the Assembly Appropriations Committee; Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance; Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, D-Orinda; Tasha Boerner Horvath, D-Carlsbad; Cottie Petrie-Norris, (D-Laguna Beach).

The bill would make clear what they say has been the Legislature’s intent since the pandemic struck last March, that in-school instruction be the priority, conditions permitting.

“If a health order is lifted, schools should be back in session, with accommodations for vulnerable students and teachers,” O’Donnell said in an interview Monday.

As emergency legislation, to be acted on soon and to take effect immediately, the bill will require a two-thirds approval of the Legislature — a daunting challenge coming in the darkest period of the pandemic. But the bill could also add pressure on Gov. Gavin Newsom to act on his own, which Ting and other legislators had been calling for previously.

O’Donnell said the intent is to “inject a sense of urgency” and to “push and prod” district administrators and unions back to the table to get a plan for fully ready for reopening schools.

Edgar Zazueta, senior director of policy and government relations for the Association of California School Administrators, said that “at first glance, the bill appears to meet the spirit of what we have been hearing from education leaders, that the state should take a more proactive approach to reopening — to tell school not only when we can but should proceed to reopen.”

“At the same time,” he said, “we are going to be sensitive to protect local control and unique circumstances on the ground.”

Most districts, including the largest urban districts, have remained in distance learning since March. Other districts, primarily in rural areas and in parts of San Diego, Orange and Marin counties, have reopened mainly under a hybrid setting for a partial return for in-person instruction for those families who want to return.

Some pre-K-6 schools in counties in the purple tier received waivers to reopen and can continue to operate under the state’s latest Covid clampdown, although no new waivers are permitted. An unknown number of districts have opened schools for tutoring, counseling and special services for individuals or small cohorts of special education, homeless and foster children. However, some districts, including Los Angeles Unified, have now suspended these operations.

The bill would not set the timing for when districts should send most students back to schools or the instructional model — whether a hybrid setting for a partial return or in-person instruction for those who want to return. And it would ensure that students who cannot or would prefer not to return physically to school can continue in distance learning. But it would require districts and charter schools to publicly adopt a plan to offer in-person instruction within two weeks after state and county health departments issue orders allowing school campuses to be open. Under the current system, that would mean moving a county to red, the second-least restrictive conditions, based on infection rates and numbers of patients in hospital intensive care units.

The bill also states that no later than March 1, districts must develop and implement a plan for “tiered reengagement strategies” for all English learners and low-income, foster and homeless students — comprising more than 60% of students in the state — “who are performing below grade level.” This provision is more detailed and extensive than the current law setting expectations in Senate Bill 98 that was passed in June with the state budget. Districts and charter schools would have to reach out to those students, some of whom may have stopped attending classes, identify their needs and set up health and social services. Schools would then have a choice of offering in-person instruction at a minimum of 50% of instructional minutes required, or creating summer school for in-person instruction.

Some districts that have already decided to return only when their county is in the orange tier, like San Jose Unified, or districts that had decided to remain in distance learning through June, such as San Bernardino City Unified, would have to revise their plans if the bill passes.

Other districts were unable to reach agreements with their employee unions for in-person instruction during the summer and fall. The California Teachers Association and the smaller California Federation of Teachers have been demanding that comprehensive Covid testing, staff training in safety protocols, adequate classroom ventilation and better data on the spread of infections be in place before teachers return to classrooms. Their opposition would be a huge obstacle to passing AB 10.

In an email, CTA spokeswoman Claudia Briggs called the bill a starting point and said that CTA looks forward to working with authors, educators and administrators.

“We know that parents and administrators share our concerns and in order to return safely, it’s important that we have accurate, transparent data information on Covid-19 case rates and transmission and that there is enforcement of the existing guidelines to safely reopen our schools,” she said. “The inequities highlighted by the pandemic have further disadvantaged some of our most vulnerable students as well as our younger kids. This must be addressed by providing these students with additional supports.”

O’Donnell said that if more resources for testing and other safeguards are needed, legislators will work with Newsom to provide them.

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  1. Gustavo Urrea 2 months ago2 months ago

    What is most concerning is the spiking of the virus. Hospitals are at their fullest capacities and many are not surviving the virus. How then?

  2. Lorena 2 months ago2 months ago

    As a teacher I would much rather have my students in the classroom with me, but this is a global pandemic! Distance learning isn't the best learning environment for everyone, but at this moment it is the safest one. I understand the concern for students; however, I see this issue is more about educational companies getting their testing fees than the health and safety of our students, teachers, and staff. Children are learning in distance … Read More

    As a teacher I would much rather have my students in the classroom with me, but this is a global pandemic! Distance learning isn’t the best learning environment for everyone, but at this moment it is the safest one. I understand the concern for students; however, I see this issue is more about educational companies getting their testing fees than the health and safety of our students, teachers, and staff.
    Children are learning in distance learning. Is it optimum? No, but it is safe. How can we possibly consider opening schools with thousands are dying daily? That makes no sense.

  3. Roger 3 months ago3 months ago

    Honestly, get back to school. Sanitize, evaluate and sequester any students/teachers that test positive. We can still provide online resources for students/teachers that are immunocompromised or nervous about returning to school, but the risks to emotional health of our students, and the learning losses that they are facing in this online-only environment are catastrophic in comparison to the risk of exposure to the virus.

  4. Alicia 3 months ago3 months ago

    The LAUSD surveyed parents about their choice for students to return to campus. The results showed that 66% of parents want their children to continue learning strictly online. The survey was designed so that if a family did not respond their “choice“ would default to the hybrid model. Even with that hurdle, the majority of parents showed that they do not want their children back in school. I work in … Read More

    The LAUSD surveyed parents about their choice for students to return to campus. The results showed that 66% of parents want their children to continue learning strictly online. The survey was designed so that if a family did not respond their “choice“ would default to the hybrid model. Even with that hurdle, the majority of parents showed that they do not want their children back in school. I work in a Title I school with English learners. Trust me when I tell you that parents of ELs do not want their children to go back to go to school. Yes they realize that their children are struggling but they feel confident that once the pandemic is over and everyone returns, the schools will provide opportunities for their children to catch up.

  5. Alison 3 months ago3 months ago

    I noticed the quote from O’Donnell about protecting “vulnerable students and teachers,” but currently see no protection for teachers in the proposed bill. Many school district plans allow for students to choose to remain remote, but that plan is often accommodated by requiring “hybrid simultaneous instruction,” where teachers in the classroom teach students both home and in the class at the same time. This means vulnerable teachers have only two options: medical leave until they … Read More

    I noticed the quote from O’Donnell about protecting “vulnerable students and teachers,” but currently see no protection for teachers in the proposed bill. Many school district plans allow for students to choose to remain remote, but that plan is often accommodated by requiring “hybrid simultaneous instruction,” where teachers in the classroom teach students both home and in the class at the same time. This means vulnerable teachers have only two options: medical leave until they can no longer afford to do so financially, or leave the profession entirely. Given the teacher shortages in the state, that should be a concern.

    Finally, while any bill that does not include funding to support a return with proper ventilation, PPE and social distancing is unacceptable. I’m also concerned by the often misleading message that transmission from students is low. There is no regular testing system in place for reopening schools. That means data is incomplete at best. Secondary students often are not educated in stable cohorts and are usually not the age referenced when people insist that children do not spread the disease. Given the exponential growth of this disease, it seems like folly to plan the same structure of return for every school regardless of other data-how at risk is the local community of a school. How far behind will students become if valued family members become ill? How detrimental to their success will the death of a loved teacher be?

  6. Melanie 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thank you for your reporting. Can you please do a follow-up piece on why lawmakers are refusing to include language to require testing and contact tracing? The entertainment business has successfully remained open because of strong adherence to a strict protocol of testing, training and tracing. We all want our kids back in school, as soon as it's safe. So let's make it safe. The state should copy the entertainment business model and fund the … Read More

    Thank you for your reporting. Can you please do a follow-up piece on why lawmakers are refusing to include language to require testing and contact tracing? The entertainment business has successfully remained open because of strong adherence to a strict protocol of testing, training and tracing. We all want our kids back in school, as soon as it’s safe. So let’s make it safe.

    The state should copy the entertainment business model and fund the schools to implement it. Voters support this – so why isn’t it being done? A CTA research report found that, “Fully 88% of both voters and parents approve of the CTA’s firm stand that in-school instruction should only be permitted if school districts implement clear plans for conducting COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.” The report can be found on the CTA website. I’ve read a lot of articles on kids’ mental health being the priority and nothing on why this reasonable solution to getting them back in school is not being seriously pursued (except by the unions.)

  7. Charu Gupta 3 months ago3 months ago

    I’m a PTSA president of a CA public high school. How can we best support this bill and advocate for its passing in January?

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 3 months ago3 months ago

      Thanks for writing, Charu.

      I’d suggest writing the governor and sharing your thoughts at the next meeting of your school board. We’ll be covering the bill, so keep reading to decide when the right time would be to share your thoughts. The bill is likely to change.

  8. Kathy 3 months ago3 months ago

    This is pure grandstanding. The state doesn’t have authority over local school boards – by design. The public school system relies on local control, and reopening requires labor buy-in as well as pandemic-ready facilities as well as protocols to mitigate outbreaks.

  9. Doug McRae 3 months ago3 months ago

    The sentiments of AB 10 are undoubtedly supported by a strong majority of folks involved with K-12 schools in California, from students and parents to teachers and administrators, and now Pres-Elect Biden is weighing in with a target of all K-12 schools back-to-in-person instruction within 100 days of taking office or essentially by late April. That's just in time for an attempt to get some data from the statewide testing program in early to mid-May. … Read More

    The sentiments of AB 10 are undoubtedly supported by a strong majority of folks involved with K-12 schools in California, from students and parents to teachers and administrators, and now Pres-Elect Biden is weighing in with a target of all K-12 schools back-to-in-person instruction within 100 days of taking office or essentially by late April. That’s just in time for an attempt to get some data from the statewide testing program in early to mid-May. But dumping the whole load of an entire statewide testing program into the first 3 weeks back is not a reasonable thought.

    The CA CDE and SBE have already signaled support for a shortened test for the Smarter Balanced components of statewide tests, to generate statewide data (including subgroup data) for learning loss measurement but not enough to generate instructional data. The feds require all students be tested for selected grades, but one reasonable thought is to plan a random student sampling design to generate statewide data (including subgroup data) to reduce the all-student load just after many students would resume in-person instruction, and ask if needed for a federal waiver for such a design. If this notion is followed, then it would be wise to consider having shortened versions of tests using all computer-scored items (in particular, eliminate the instructionally-oriented performance task items for Smarter Balanced tests) to insure on valid and reliable short-test statewide data.

  10. Dan Plonsey 3 months ago3 months ago

    "O’Donnell said that if more resources for testing and other safeguards are needed, legislators will work with Newsom to provide them." There's no "if" about it: in my fairly wealthy district (median home price over $1.25million), those resources are not there. So how about if the legislature first finds those resources before even talking about forcing schools to reopen? It's not just our unions which support adequate safety measures -- most children and parents want … Read More

    “O’Donnell said that if more resources for testing and other safeguards are needed, legislators will work with Newsom to provide them.” There’s no “if” about it: in my fairly wealthy district (median home price over $1.25million), those resources are not there. So how about if the legislature first finds those resources before even talking about forcing schools to reopen? It’s not just our unions which support adequate safety measures — most children and parents want this as well!