Photo: Chino Valley Unified School District/Facebook
Last revised Aug. 31.

As most schools in California begin the new school year with distance learning, there is still a lot of uncertainty about how it will all work.

Many of our readers have sent us questions seeking clarification on numerous key issues. Scroll down to see the answers to your most frequently asked questions, or use the links to the right to jump to a specific topic.

We will continue to update this page with more questions as they come in.

Please feel free to submit your questions, or sign up for alerts so we can let you know when we update this page, using the boxes to the right. We also recently hosted a town hall where we answered many of your questions — you can watch that here.

Instruction and Curriculum for Distance Learning

Q: How much time must teachers spend with students?

A: Here is the daily breakdown for the 2020-21 school year:

  • 180 minutes (3 hours) for kindergarten.
  • 230 minutes (3 hours and 50 minutes) for grades one through three.
  • 240 minutes (4 hours) for grades 4 through 12.

Q: What is synchronous versus asynchronous instruction? 

A: Synchronous instruction takes place when both a teacher and student are interacting directly in a live online setting, such as a live lesson on a video conferencing platform, or in a physical classroom.

Asynchronous instruction does not require the student and teacher to be working together in a live setting, but involves students working on their own on assignments they have been given by their teachers. Examples include watching a pre-recorded video, completing assignments and activities without direct teacher supervision and other self-paced homework assignments.

Q: Will core academic subjects be given more instructional minutes than electives?

A: California passed Senate Bill 98 this summer adjusting the amount of minimum instructional time for students during the school day. The required time is 3 hours per day for kindergartners, 3 hours and 50 minutes for grades 1-3 and 4 hours for grades 4-12.

While there are no set requirements for specific subjects established in SB 98, many districts are using block scheduling at the middle and high school levels, which provides the same allocation of minutes across core subjects and electives. In a block schedule, students attend fewer classes every day but for longer periods than they would in a traditional school day, where they attend every class, every day. For example, a student might have chemistry, history and PE on Mondays and Thursdays and Spanish, math, and English language arts on Tuesdays and Fridays. Each period is an hour and a half. Wednesdays would be reserved for students to work independently on projects, check in with teachers, etc.

Q: Are there any requirements for physical education, and how will educators help students meet those requirements?

A: The minimum instructional minutes for physical education have been waived for the 2020-21 school year. However, PE  requirements have not changed and districts are still required to provide PE instruction during distance learning. Some districts are doing this asynchronously with activities for kids to do at home or in their neighborhood on their own, for example. Additional information can be found at this link.

Q: Are schools still required to take attendance? 

A: Schools and districts are still expected to collect information on absences and report absences. For more information on absences and attendance, see this FAQ page from the California Department of Education.

However, they are not expected to collect information on attendance in order to get funding from the state. Generally, Average Daily Attendance (ADA) is used to determine funding for school, and districts report this information to the state multiple times during the year. However, because of the disruptions caused by distance learning, the Legislature and governor agreed to base funding for schools on the pre-pandemic attendance rates from the 2019-20 school year, as explained in more detail in this story. More information about funding and instructional time is also available from the CDE website.

Q: Some schools and districts seem to be handling the transition to distance learning better than others. What are the key drivers of this difference?

A: It is not yet clear what factors enabled some districts to do better than others. However, it seems that districts or charter schools that started planning early, had computers already in the hands of students and were already using educational platforms were able to move to distance learning more quickly. It also helped to get early agreement with labor unions on how to offer distance learning.

Q: What resources are available for parents and teachers of English learners?

A: Schools often offer information in Spanish or other languages spoken by their parents. Some school districts are finding that it is helpful to partner with parents to reach out to other parents. For example, a group run by the California Association of Bilingual Education, Project2Inspire, normally trains parents in several districts on how to navigate the school system. Since the shelter-in-place began, the group has begun training parents on distance learning and support services. District leaders say parents can often reach other parents in a way that administrators and even teachers may not.

You can find more resources for parents and teachers of English learners here, and resources in Spanish for parents here.

Access to technology for distance learning

Q: How many students in California don’t have the devices or internet access for distance learning?

A: As of July 29, nearly 700,000 students still lack computers or Wi-Fi at home needed to participate in online learning — here is a recent story from EdSource’s Sydney Johnson on this issue.

Q: How can teachers ensure that their students have access to reliable Wi-Fi for distance learning?

A One of the simplest ways teachers can help students gain access to Wi-Fi is ensuring that families are aware of any discount offers from internet subscription companies such as ATT and Verizon, many of which have extended free or reduced cost plans for the school year.

To make the process of signing up for internet easier, some districts — such as Los Angeles Unified — have created websites where parents can type their zip code to find out which lower-cost options are available in their area. However, there is only so much teachers can do to help their students with devices and connectivity. It will ultimately be up to school districts and the state to ensure that all students have the internet access and devices they need for distance learning.

Some rural areas that do not have cell service, or even electricity, will not be able to utilize those offers or mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. One available funding source for school districts looking to purchase technology and other distance learning supplies is the $5.3 billion Learning Loss Mitigation Fund consisting mostly of federal funding California received through the CARES Act. The window to apply closed on August 5, and Gov. Gavin Newsom said that every eligible district was awarded funding. Districts can see how much they received here.

The California Department of Education also recently announced a deal with Apple and T-Mobile where districts can purchase discounted iPads with internet service already included. School districts can contact the California Department of Education for more information on how to submit orders to Apple and T-Mobile. Districts can also contact the Apple Contracts Team at contracts@apple.com for more information.

Q: Tens of thousands of students attend school in rural districts. How can they do distance learning if they don’t have internet access at home and hot spots or Wi-Fi are not available?

A: This remains an ongoing challenge despite years-long efforts in California to close the digital divide (see EdSource’s Sydney Johnson’s story on efforts to close the digital divide here).  In areas without cell service or electricity, offering Wi-Fi hotspots and internet discounts would make no sense. Addressing the problem directly will require building infrastructure in unserved areas, which has been a struggle for years.

Districts were recently awarded portions of the $5.3 billion Learning Loss Mitigation Fund, which can be used towards purchasing devices and internet hotspots and investing in broadband infrastructure for students. Some districts meanwhile have equipped busses with internet to travel into students’ neighborhoods during school hours. In very remote districts, students might work from parking lots at school buildings if no other Wi-Fi option is available.

School districts not in counties that are on the state’s monitoring list may be able to bring some students back to campus for in-person instruction and avoid connectivity issues at home. In some cases, districts are also giving students paper packets and other non-digital learning materials, though this has led some to worry that these students will have less access to their teachers and other learning opportunities.

Special Education

Q: What will districts be doing for students with IEPs, especially those that require in-person one-to-one aides for learning?

A: State and federal laws mandate that schools provide special education services and adhere to students’ individualized educational programs (IEP) during the school closures. In addition, a new law in California requires districts to add a distance learning plan to each student’s IEP, which would be in effect any time a school closes for more than 10 days. Districts are working to provide students with tablets and assistive technology devices that they might have used at school, and adapting IEP plans for at-home learning. But many parents — especially those whose children have moderate or severe disabilities — say that even under the best circumstances, distance learning does not work well for special education, and students are at risk of regressing.

Q: How will schools provide speech and occupational therapy virtually?

A: Most schools will offer one-on-one video calls between students and therapists, at least weekly. In some districts, therapists are visiting students’ homes, or students are meeting with therapists on school campuses, although health experts don’t recommend this. Some schools have applied for waivers to teach special education in person. And in many districts, therapists are showing parents how to provide basic occupational, speech and physical therapy for their children. Video calls can’t replace in-person sessions, but therapists are trying their best.

Questions on opening schools for in-person instruction

Q: Where can I find out what is happening in my local schools? 

A: Most schools in California at the moment are offering classes via distance learning. However, this varies widely across the state, depending on multiple factors including whether schools are in a county on the state’s monitoring list. Websites for individual districts are the best place to find out what is happening in your local schools.

Starting Aug. 31, the state launched a new system for monitoring counties and determining when schools and businesses can open, called the Blueprint for a Safer Economy. See Quick Guide to learn more about how this new four-tiered system works.

Most county offices of education have also issued guidance for how districts in the county could reopen schools. You can find county guidance documents here.

Q: What is happening with the waivers that Gov. Newsom announced allowing elementary K-6 students to be taught in school?

Schools can apply for a waiver to teach students in person in kindergarten through the 6th grade, even if they are in a county that is on the state monitoring list.The California Dept. of Public Health has issued guidance for these waivers, and it is up to local health authorities to grant them after getting approval from the state. The entire waiver process was put on hold because of glitches in the state’s data gathering and reporting process.  It appears that most of the waivers that have been issued so far have been for private schools. In San Diego, 92 schools had applied for the waiver, and 19 had been issued as of Aug. 20, all of them private schools. But at this point it is not known how many of these waivers have been issued.  See this EdSource story by John Fensterwald

Q: What about students with special needs? Can they be taught in person? 

A: Most students with special needs will be taught remotely this fall. However, school districts, even those in counties with high Covid-19 infection rates, may be able to bring back to school small groups of students with disabilities and others with “acute” needs for face-to-face instruction, according to an announcement by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Aug. 14. The California Department of Public Health is expected to provide guidelines for districts to follow, but has not done so as of Aug. 20. For more information, see this EdSource story by John Fensterwald.

Q: Is it possible that a school might be allowed to reopen, only to be forced to close again if the county is put back on the state’s monitoring list?

A: No. If a school opens while the county it is located in is not on the list, it is not required to close if the county later is added to the list, according to state guidance issued July 17. “Schools should begin testing staff, or increase frequency of staff testing but are not required to close,” the reopening guidance says. However, if a school has not yet reopened for in-person instruction and the county is added to the list, schools must wait until the county has been removed for 14 days, unless they receive an elementary school waiver for students in grades K-6 from their county Department of Public Health in consultation with the state Department of Public Health. Counties currently on the list may be removed if their Covid-19 testing rates, case numbers, positivity rates, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and number of ventilators available meet state thresholds. (Find the state’s monitoring list here and a map of counties on the list here.)

Since these lists are updated daily, it is very possible that counties may be removed, then added back if their numbers do not meet the thresholds. It is also important to note that even if a county is not on the list, classes, schools or districts may be required to close for 14-day quarantines based on the number or percentage of students and staff who become infected, according to state guidance.

Regardless of when they leave the monitoring list, some districts will be cautious in going back to avoid a ricochet effect. They will need lead time to plan for a return to school. In addition, even if schools are allowed to open, many parents may still be unwilling to send their children to school. This means that schools would have to provide both in-person and remote instruction. As a result, it seems likely that most schools will continue distance learning for the next several months, if not the entire fall semester.

Q: What is the trigger for schools to close again after opening for in-person instruction?

A: According to guidance from the California Department of Public Health, a school will be closed if more than 5% of students or staff at a school test positive for Covid-19 in a 14-day period. A superintendent should close a school district if a quarter of its schools have been closed due to Covid-19 cases within two weeks. One major problem with this provision is that it depends on schools having a robust testing regimen in place to detect the virus’ spread in the school population.

Q: Is the quality of ventilation and the HVAC systems in schools good enough for schools to reopen safely? 

A: Poor ventilation — a problem in many schools and classrooms within schools — could require replacing new filters or upgrading air systems. One study found that half of classrooms in the Central Valley did not meet air circulation standards. Since the start of the pandemic, scientists have concluded that airborne risks of transmitting the disease are greater than surface transmission. The California Teachers Association will likely demand good ventilation as a condition for sending teachers back to the classroom. The Public Policy Institute of California took a recent look at the state of school facilities. 

Colleges and universities

Q: What is the state saying about colleges and universities reopening plans for the fall? 

A: According to guidance issued by the California Dept. of Public Health on Aug. 3, most California colleges and universities will have to offer classes virtually except for limited hands-on courses that will require physical distancing and other protocols to limit contact between students.

For those that bring students back to campus, the guidance outlines numerous safety considerations. Among others, it says dining halls should provide “grab-and-go” meals. Housing should be limited to one student per room whenever possible, and nonessential shared spaces like game rooms and lounges should be closed. Drinking fountains are prohibited. To keep students six feet apart, physical barriers such as plastic screens should be installed between bathroom sinks. Students and staff must wear masks in buildings and outdoors when six-foot distancing is not possible. This week, several campuses announced they were further tightening their protocols, including reducing how many students could stay on campus. Read the story by Louis Freedberg here.

Read EdSource’s Michael Burke’s story about this guidance here.

Q: With classes mostly virtual, will any students still be physically on campus?

A: Yes, depending on the campus. All UC campuses serving undergraduates will have some students on campus, to a greater or lesser extent. Actual numbers are still in flux. The plans vary from campus to campus, but in general, universities are prioritizing housing for those who need it most, such as students who have nowhere else to live and low-income students. For more about UC plans, see this Quick Guide. The 23 CSU campuses typically have fewer students living on campus, but they are also making arrangements for those students who need housing. Even though the vast majority of classes will be online, some specialized, hands-on courses like science labs might be held in person with physical distancing and other safety measures, depending on the campus.

Q: Will there be routine testing and contact tracing for college students and staff who are physically on campus?

A: That will vary from campus to campus. There’s no universal system that every college or university is following. UC San Diego has an ambitious program to test everyone living on campus, while UCLA will require everyone living on campus or taking classes in person, even students and staff who are asymptomatic to be tested. But not every college and university has the capacity to do that and some are just asking students to self-monitor their symptoms and stay home if they’re symptomatic. So if you’re a student, it’s best to check with your specific university to find out what they’re doing.

Q: What will high school students need to do to apply and prepare for college?

A: Students should be careful to check that they are registered for the right classes and that they sign up for the A-G courses they need to be eligible for UC or CSU. They may not have been in close touch with counselors over the past few months, so they should connect with them now. High school students planning to start at a community college, which doesn’t require A-G courses for admission, should also confirm with their school that they have taken all the courses they need for graduation. Otherwise, it’s time to switch classes.

As for SAT and ACT, they are optional this year for UC and CSU but students may want to take them anyway to give themselves a boost at both those schools and to meet requirements for private colleges. But the test dates and safety rules for the test taking are in flux. The College Board announced on Aug. 18 that nearly half of the 400,000 or so students who had signed up nationally to take the SAT on Aug. 29 might not be able to do so because testing sites are closed, or not operating at their full capacity. Stay in close touch with both the College Board and ACT.

Regarding admissions deadlines — time slips by in the virtual world. Be sure NOT to miss your admission application deadlines of Nov. 30 for UC and Dec. 4 for CSU. Try to get your application essays ready to apply early. And be sure to fill out the FAFSA form for all financial aid.

Q: Do we have a sense yet of how Covid-19 is impacting college enrollments this fall?

A: Enrollment rates aren’t yet known, as the 2020-21 school year is just beginning. But so far, colleges are not reporting a drastic fall in enrollments. Until the recent surge in Covid-19 cases, some California universities even reported stronger student interest than last year. At CSU Northridge, for example, as of July 1, 7,043 new undergraduates had registered, which is up by about 1% from the same time last year. Enrollment of continuing students — students who were already enrolled in the schools last year — also looks comparable. But definitive figures won’t be available for a while.

Q: Can students enrolled at one UC campus, such as UCLA, take a course at a different UC campus since they are all online? How about if they attend a CSU and wish to enroll in a course at a different CSU campus?

A: Usually, yes. But students would need to check with their home campuses.

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  1. Evelyn DeJohn 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Most school campuses have lots of room for outside classrooms. Why hasn’t this been considered?
    This remote learning IS NOT working, at best it is a bandaid. I know that these are extremely difficult times but please look again at outside classrooms where possible.

    Replies

    • Smita Patel 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      Hi Evelyn,
      You are right that California’s weather is usually much more conducive to open-air activities, though this year, with the heat and smoke from the fires, I’m not sure if it would have worked. It would also involve moving a lot of equipment in and out of the classrooms on a daily basis. We’ll keep asking around to see if schools have found ways to do this effectively.