Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on Wednesday after an elderly patient in Placer County, near Sacramento, died from the coronavirus. The latest developments heighten the urgency for education leaders in California, who have been exploring how to continue instruction in case of an outbreak.
No California children have been diagnosed with the virus, a respiratory illness that began with an outbreak in Wuhan, China. Risk is still low across the state, California health officials said on Wednesday, and it is believed to be higher for older adults and persons with underlying health conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How California schools prepare for the potential impact of the virus, which might lead to quarantines that affect student learning and well-being, is top of mind among parents and district officials across the state.
“It’s natural to feel concerned about the novel coronavirus,” said Mark Ghaly, secretary for the California Health and Human Services Agency, at a public briefing on Wednesday. “This is a rapidly evolving situation.”
“Clearly everybody is concerned and worried,” said Robert Collier, a parent of a 4th-grade student at Sylvia Mendez Elementary School in Berkeley Unified and president of the Berkeley PTA Council. Berkeley had its first case of coronavirus — an unidentified adult resident — reported on Tuesday.
But moving to the step of widespread school shutdowns could have devastating impacts on families, Collier said. “Most people still go into work. Most people don’t have the capacity to take care of kids during the day. It would be incredibly disruptive for people’s work lives and private lives. It would be no small thing.”
Aspire Monarch Academy, a charter school in Oakland, announced on Thursday that it will close through Friday because a staff member was potentially exposed to coronavirus. Lowell High School in San Francisco Unified, which has an enrollment of about 2,270, also closed on Thursday because a relative of a student is being treated for coronavirus.
Two private schools, the Healdsburg School in Sonoma County and Menlo School in San Mateo County, so far are the only California schools that have closed due to concerns about coronavirus. Healdsburg School has since reopened, while Menlo School plans to remain closed through the weekend.
Action Day Primary Plus, a private preschool operator in San Jose, closed its Moorpark location on Thursday for deep cleaning after learning a teacher tested positive for coronavirus. The school will remain closed through the week, and the other nine Action Day Primary Plus schools will remain open.
In Palo Alto Unified, two students were sent home Friday after district officials learned that their parent may have been exposed to someone with the virus, also known as COVID-19. Palo Alto Unified has no plans to close schools at this point and is not providing online instruction to students whose parents might choose to keep their children at home.
Health and education officials are now telling schools to prepare if students and teachers must stay home. Schools that do close have been advised to “implement e-learning plans, including digital and distance learning options as feasible and appropriate,” according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. The California Department of Education is encouraging districts to follow guidance from the California Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control.
Some districts are now discussing how technology can help keep lessons going if students must stay home. But in many districts, especially those in rural areas, students may lack the computers and internet at home needed for online learning. Simply turning in digital assignments can be prohibitive for students without internet at home.
Only about a third of California households in rural areas are subscribed to internet service, compared with 78 percent in urban areas, according to an EdSource analysis last year of data from the California Public Utilities Commission.
“I think it would be a mistake for school districts, including PAUSD, to prematurely commit to online instruction for all students,” said Palo Alto Unified superintendent Don Austin. “I would be concerned about teacher training, student access to connectivity and devices, school district tools, accounting of instructional minutes and a myriad of other considerations.”
In Paradise Unified in Butte County, officials are beginning to discuss their learning contingency plan.
The district has been here before: The 2018 Camp Fire, the most destructive in California’s history, forced schools in Paradise to close as families were displaced. While schools remained closed, the district kept some lessons going for students in grades 7 to 12. The district used an online learning program called Edmentum, and other tools like Google Classroom, which teachers in the district already have access to and can use to create digital assignments.
But even before the Camp Fire, officials say ensuring every student has access to the internet and computers at home has been difficult in Paradise, a small rural town.
“Not having devices is always a stumbling block to online learning,” Superintendent Tom Taylor said. But online learning isn’t off the table for Paradise. During the fires, the district issued devices and mobile WiFi routers to students who didn’t have access already. Taylor said the district could do that again.
Other education experts say many schools lack the tools and training needed to successfully switch from an in-person school system to temporarily delivering instruction online. Teachers and students must first know how to use online teaching platforms. Then there’s the added challenge of creating a digital learning environment that is engaging for students who are used to asking questions and working face-to-face.
“There are a million reasons why this won’t work. Think about child care. Schools give students a safe space during the day when often both caregivers are off working and doing something else,” said Tanner Higgins, a director at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit based in San Francisco that advocates for safe technology use for children and their families.
Some districts without the capacity to continue learning during a school closure are making other plans, such as adding instructional days to the end of the school calendar. South Pasadena Unified School District sent parents an email on Wednesday telling parents it does not have the infrastructure to offer distance learning for all students and to begin planning for the possibility that schools might close.
Illness-related school closures are rare in California.
There were only 72 emergency school closure days due to infectious diseases between 2002 and 2018, CalMatters reported, compared with thousands of days schools closed due to wildfires and natural disasters. Administrators should work with local health officials when making decisions about school dismissal or large event cancellations, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Across the state, K-12 administrators have sent out emails and social media posts saying they are reviewing emergency plans and have asked parents to take precautions similar to those advised during flu season. Many are also ramping up cleaning and disinfecting protocols. Officials in Palo Alto Unified said Monday that additional cleaning crews worked at both Palo Alto High School and JLS Middle School over the weekend.
Districts near Solano County, where one of the earliest cases of the virus was reported in California, are also offering short-term independent study for some families. Los Angeles Unified similarly advised schools to “help minimize the impact on the student’s academic success, and offer opportunities for the students to study independently at their home or a quarantine location,” if a student is required to stay home due to coronavirus concerns.
In Berkeley Unified, district leaders met on Tuesday to refine their emergency response. If someone at one of its schools comes in contact with the virus, the district plans to contact local health agencies for guidance on whether to send the person home and if school closure is necessary. The district plans to continue communicating with school staff and families on any updates, such as if someone at a school had been exposed to the virus and advising on best practices to stay healthy.
But officials are still unclear what the best response will be to continue learning during an outbreak.
“It’s no small task to develop an online learning program on the fly,” said Trish McDermott, public information officer at Berkeley Unified. “We have families who are homeless or don’t have technology at home. That creates an equity issue for students where it might be possible.”
The district is looking into less formal remote learning options, such as Khan Academy, a website that offers free video lessons and tutorials for students, and how schools and families might utilize the local library.
“I think the district is being as forthcoming and communicative as it can, but of course nobody has a crystal ball. How bad is this going to get? Will it become a pandemic? Nobody knows,” Collier said.
The number of cases of the coronavirus reported in the U.S. remains low — 152 as of Wednesday afternoon, and 11 deaths. State officials said 53 individuals in California have been confirmed with the virus as of Wednesday.
Several counties have issued states of emergency, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, where seven cases have been confirmed. Two new cases of the virus were confirmed on Monday in Santa Clara County, bringing the county’s total to nine.
As school officials rush to get the latest updates and pull together emergency plans, some online learning services are trying to prepare remote learning alternatives.
One of those services is Scout, a University of California-run program that develops and delivers A-G-approved courses (required for admission to UC and California State University) to students online. California public high schools can use the Scout platform and classes for free. It includes a learning management system that students and teachers use to communicate and submit assignments, course content including video lessons, assignments, tests, and projects, a grade book for teachers, and other online tools.
It’s unclear, however, if the free platform could handle a sharp uptick in users on short notice. Last year, Scout worked with 712 California schools.
“A concern would be if we have enough support,” said Ehren Koepf, executive director of Scout. “If we have a high volume of questions, can my staff answer questions quick enough?”
Meanwhile, parents in Alhambra Unified near Los Angeles have been pressuring district leaders to keep students home, although no cases of coronavirus have been reported in the San Gabriel Valley, where the district is located.
Even in urban and suburban districts like Alhambra Unified, where nearly 64 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch, remote learning will be difficult.
“Two of our challenges will be making sure that students have equitable access to WiFi and laptops,” said Janet Lees, assistant superintendent of educational services for Alhambra Unified. “Another challenge will be making sure we are able to create relevant and effective instruction.”
As districts sort out their capacity to deliver online learning, Taylor, the superintendent in Paradise Unified, said his top concern is students’ emotional well-being during this confusing time.
“If there is to be an outbreak it would really be tough for our community, and any community,” he said. “We are still in recovery mode from the fire, then you get hit with something like this, and it’s another added layer.”