Gov. Gavin Newsom advised school districts on Tuesday that they should expect to be closed the rest of the school year. On Wednesday, educators began Day 1 of that new and, for some, shocking reality with a 75-minute webinar led by the California Department of Education, viewed by about 7,000 people, on how to provide distance learning, meals for students and limited child care while schools are shut down because of the coronavirus.
Newsom issued the directive to provide those services on March 13. Since then, it has become more difficult to meet those obligations, with tightening restrictions throughout California on gatherings and moving about. But in remarks on Tuesday and in a lengthy guidance document issued Tuesday night, state education officials said they understand the challenges that districts will face and will work with them.
Ben Chida, senior adviser to Newsom and his liaison with schools on the coronavirus, gave educators simple advice: “As facts change on the ground, keep in mind that our north star is to do what calls you to this work, and we will have your back.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond reiterated that school districts will receive funding and won’t have to worry about state testing, including the Smarter Balanced assessments in math and English language arts: State tests will be suspended, pending a federal waiver, he said.
“The governor’s order gives flexibility to school districts to provide different ways to deliver education,” Thurmond said. “It says that no school district needs to worry about funding; every school district will receive the funding that it needs as it finds alternative and creative ways to ensure that California students receive education.”
And Wesley Smith, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, encouraged a positive mindset: “We have to change our paradigm. I would encourage us not to be overwhelmed by the guidance. Instead of thinking about what we are being forced to do, let’s ask the question, ‘What can we do? What is practical? What is doable and then what support do you need?’” The state, his organization and others “will step up to provide you that support,” he said.
Thurmond said the guidance document will be updated at least weekly as events change and will incorporate ideas and suggestions. The department received dozens of questions during the webinar but didn’t have time to answer them. Thurmond said the updated guidance would incorporate answers.
The document is divided into chapters on distance learning, school meals and child care, with sections broadly addressing how to serve special education students and English learners. What follows are summaries of the elements with comments from the webinar.
The guidance said districts must immediately create a plan for distance learning, while recognizing that districts may have to ramp up efforts over several weeks. Shanine Coats, director of the state education department’s Curriculum Frameworks and Instructional Resources Division, reiterated what the guidance emphasized: “In these difficult times, we cannot lose track of the needs of our most disadvantaged students.”
All students are legally entitled to standards-aligned materials. Some districts have been reluctant to plan new lessons due to the inability and uncertainty of reaching students who may not have home computers and internet access at home. The guidance encourages districts to find innovative ways and sources to provide lessons.
But equal access does not require all students receive the same material the same way. “Instead of abandoning a promising e-learning approach because not all students will have equal access to it from home, the plan should include an analysis of alternate deliveries of comparable educational content,” the guidance says. These could include paper materials, phone calls to students at home and face-to-face meetings complying with social distancing.
While acknowledging that distance learning offerings will be “uneven” among districts, State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond said in an interview, “we are not as far behind on distant learning as many people think.” Thanks to donations from businesses and other sources, she said, “in many places there is going to be a capacity to have every student covered by Wi-Fi and portable devices.” In fact, she said, one outcome of the current dire situation is that “there is a good chance this will accelerate what school districts can do” in regards to distance learning.
The guidance from the state includes extensive links to resources and best practices for online learning, including a section, assembled by the Riverside County Office of Education, on how to start from scratch. It features the gamut of experience: full-blown online learning by the Westlake Charter School, Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ plan for emergency learning, and Los Angeles Unified’s partnership with PBS to provide rich programming for all grades. The PBS service is particularly useful for students without Wi-Fi or a home computer, since most families do have a television, Coats said.
Look around for innovations, said Kristin Wright, director of the state’s Special Education Division, such as South Carolina’s use of school buses to deliver food and lesson plans to homes and to serve as local internet hot spots.
The Department of Education also offered guidance and clarification about offering non-congregate meals to students, with a focus on students from low-income families who are eligible for free and reduced-priced lunches.
Students from families earning between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty threshold are eligible for the National School Lunch Program. Although feeding students from low-income families is the focus, many districts are feeding every child that shows up to pick up a meal.
Already most school districts are passing out meals to families as they drive through bus lanes or parking lots, while others are serving lunches from food trucks at bus stops, said Kim Frinzell, director of Nutrition Services for the California Department of Education. Districts also have teamed up with libraries, food banks and community organizations to offer meals to students, she said.
Frinzell encouraged school districts who are offering one meal to each child per day to follow the lead of others in the state that are offering two meals to each child each day — lunch for that day and breakfast for the next.
Districts are providing the meals through the Summer Food Service Program, which has the most flexible rules, Frinzell said. But the state is seeking even more flexibility and has submitted multiple waivers to the federal government asking to allow home delivery of meals, flexibility in monitoring new meal service and the ability to allow parents to pick up meals without having their child present.
She informed school districts who aren’t offering the service that they can purchase food from a vendor or local company if they can’t prepare the meals themselves. The vendors must adhere to federal nutritional guidelines.
Frinzell advised school leaders to consider offering meals at multiple sites and to select sites that would be the most accessible to students eligible for the free lunch program. School officials should consider the best times of day to serve the meals to make them as accessible as possible to families, including before and after work hours, as well as during the lunch hour.
While the federal government has not waived the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal Office of Special Education Programs is apparently allowing districts some flexibility.
The state might also waive some requirements, according to Wright, of the Special Education Division for the state’s education department.
Wright acknowledged Wednesday that special education will be a challenge as long as schools are closed, but districts should try different approaches to meet students’ individual needs.
“We want districts to consider equity, access, innovation and what we can do,” she said. “That doesn’t mean everything will look exactly the same for every student, and that’s OK.”
She suggested that districts could open a school for special education classes, as long as social-distancing guidelines are in place. She also suggested that districts could use their bus services to deliver materials to students’ homes. And she recommended that districts allow students to bring home their technological devices, such as tablets or devices that aid communication.
In addition, the California Department of Education will create a special education workgroup to create more specific recommendations for students in special education.
The Department of Education is urging districts that are closed to help families find child care, especially for those families who are responding to the crisis, such as health workers, emergency response personnel, child care workers, and key government employees. The state is recommending that districts consider providing temporary child care on school sites or partnering with other local agencies to help families find child care programs that are still open.
The state is allowing employers to provide temporary emergency child care for their employees, and is suggesting that schools that are closed might be one place where this type of child care could be provided.
Child care programs that remain open must adhere to health and safety guidelines from local and state health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Bay Area counties that have ordered residents to “shelter in place,” for example, child care should be only for 12 children at a time and focused on the children of health care and other essential workers. There is also new state guidance to try to protect employees from infection, including more disinfection, training on how the virus spreads and screening parents and children for symptoms.
EdSource writers Carolyn Jones, Diana Lambert and Zaidee Stavely contributed to the article.
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