As the coronavirus spreads in California, county school superintendents expressed concerns to Gov. Gavin Newsom about the impact of possible school closures on low-income students, especially those who depend on school meals. They also raised the issue of families who may face challenges finding care for their children if schools are closed.
To better understand local concerns, Newsom on Monday gathered in his office State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and many of the county superintendents of schools representing the state’s 58 counties who voiced concerns about next steps in dealing withe the spreading virus.
“We’re doing a bottom-up process, not a top-down process,” Newsom told reporters on Tuesday, noting that school boards will also help make decisions related to closures. “Each county is different.”
Newsom highlighted the guidance for K-12 schools and colleges to deal with the virus that the state sent out to schools on Saturday. Newsom also stressed that the state will not order California’s 6 million students to stay home and will not tell counties or districts when local schools should close. Instead, he said the state is relying on districts to consult with their county public health agencies to determine what is best for their students and communities.
He said Santa Clara County appears to be furthest along in terms of requiring social distancing, noting that health officials there have implemented a ban on all large gatherings of more than 1,000 people. Statewide, he said 60 percent of students receive free or reduced priced meals, but in some counties it is much higher. In Merced, 80 percent of students receive free or reduced price school meals, so the state is trying to plan for different scenarios in case school closures are required.
Shortly after Newsom’s press conference, the California Department of Education announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a special CA COVID19 waiver through June 30 that will allow any school district previously approved to distribute meals through the Summer Food Service Program or Seamless Summer Option to provide meals to students during a school closure related to the virus.
“When a school or district closes, our first concern is the safety and care of our students,” Thurmond said. “Our nutrition services division was proactive in reaching out to the USDA to request the necessary approval in anticipation of local educational agencies potentially having to close due to the coronavirus. That advanced planning, combined with the rapid response from the USDA, will allow districts to continue to provide their most vulnerable students with nutritious meals in the event of a closure.”
The waiver will allow schools to serve meals at both school or non-school sites and to offer options that do not require students to eat on site and can instead be taken to another location to eat, which is a departure from usual federal guidelines. This will enable students to be fed without increasing the risk of spreading germs, according to the state. Alternative sites discussed for meal distribution included libraries and parks.
He said Los Angeles County superintendent Debra Duardo expressed concerns about how districts could distribute school meals, as well as how school closures would affect low-income students and those who are undocumented. “Immigrant overlays were a big part of the conversation we were having with Los Angeles,” Newsom said.
The capacity of schools to provide online learning or independent study was also discussed. Some school leaders told the governor they were worried that many teachers are not trained in independent study or online learning.
“I know districts are looking at options,” said Kindra Britt, spokeswoman for the California Department of Education, adding that the state is concerned about equity and students’ access to wi-fi and computers.
Orange County Superintendent Al Mijares told EdSource current laws regarding independent study are very restrictive and require parents to ask permission for their students to participate.
“The supes were asking for an executive order to free that up,” he said, adding that they also requested some sort of executive order “to provide more independence to do what we felt was important to assure the safety of students,” including more liberty related to instructional minutes required. The state requires varied numbers of minutes of instruction for students based on grade spans and types of schools and penalizes schools that don’t meet the requirements. Mijares did not elaborate on what kind of flexibility the superintendents were seeking.
“He agreed with us on many points,” Mijares said, adding that he sensed that Newsom and his team “had to go back and think it through.”
Britt, spokeswoman for the California Department of Education, said the California Department of Public Health is the lead agency working with districts to help them determine if school closures are necessary. She said the state Department of Education wants districts to do what’s in the best interests of their students and staff and that funding questions can be worked out later.
District officials asked the governor to provide a waiver so that they would continue to get funding if they close their schools since funding is now based on attendance. “A lot of issues involved funding,” Britt said, adding that the state’s Department of Education looks forward to working with the legislature to work out these complex challenges.
Although districts can apply for waivers to receive funding if schools close for emergencies such as fires or power outages, Britt said no hard and fast rules have yet been established regarding closures related to coronavirus. “We’re trying to take it case by case,” she said.
Britt also pointed out that schools need to consult pesticide regulations regarding the disinfectants and sanitizing products to ensure they are using them correctly.
Regarding school testing. Britt said county superintendents were told that districts do not have the authority to suspend federally mandated student testing.
Michelle Smith McDonald, spokeswoman for the Alameda County Office of Education, said her agency has been receiving a lot of questions from local districts about whether to cancel field trips and assemblies. She said new guidance from the county’s health department expected soon would help to clarify how those decisions should be made. The guidance released late Tuesday advised schools to consider alternatives to group programming within a school “including large or communal activities such as assemblies.” Instead, the county suggested “conducting assemblies via webcasts or intercom announcements.”
Contra Costa County issued new guidance Tuesday recommending the cancellation of large community events where 50 or more people are within arm’s length of each other, as well as large, in-person meetings and conferences. It said all schools and classrooms should be equipped with hand sanitizers and tissues and that schools should “explore distance learning and online options to continue learning,” and “make backup plans for childcare given the potential for school dismissals.”
Staff writer Louis Freedberg contributed to this report.