Photo: Julie Leopo/EdSource

As the coronavirus crisis deepens in California, the state’s rural districts are joining their urban and suburban counterparts at a quickening pace in moving to close as well.

The pace of closure picked up rapidly over the last couple of days. On Monday, at least 100 additional school districts, almost all of them rural ones, announced that they would be closing. By late afternoon, according to an EdSource tally, some 825 districts out of 1,035 in California, were either closed, or in the process of doing so. That’s up from 599 twenty-four hours earlier. These closures are expected to affect a total of 5.9 million students, comprising 96 percent of California’s 6.2 million public school students.

School districts appear to be responding to advice they are receiving from public health officials, and also to federal and state restrictions that would make running any school difficult if not impossible.

Gov. Newsom’s call for “home isolation” of people over age 65 would have a particularly severe impact on rural school districts where many older staffers drive school buses or work in the schools’ cafeterias on a part-time basis. “That is creating a lot of problems for these rural areas because people 65 and older can be a significant part of their custodial and meals service staff,” said Peter Birdsall, executive director of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, representing education offices in all 58 counties.

Increasingly restrictive guidelines limiting the number of gatherings — the state ban on gatherings of more than 250 people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines limiting groups to no more than 50 and then the recommendation Monday by President Trump to limit groups to more than 10 — also appeared to make running schools in a normal fashion impossible. “Given that kind of guidance, school districts up and down the state are making the decision to close,” said Birdsall.

The announcement Monday of the death of a substitute teacher in Sacramento City Unified after contracting the virus further underscored the risks schools are facing.

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On Monday many district and county administrators who will be closing sometime this week were working to rapidly set up systems for distance learning, meal programs and offering child care of some kind — complicated tasks in areas where students could live more than 40 miles away from their schools and have spotty, if any, internet access.

“It’s been pretty crazy, but we have great relationships with all our districts and we’re all committed to working together to do what’s best for the entire community,” said Patty Gunderson, superintendent of Lassen County schools in mountainous northeastern California. “It might be a little slow but that’s because we’re doing what we can to keep our students as safe as possible.”  All districts in her county are slated to close beginning this Thursday — just days after indicating that they would stay open.

Schools in California get funding from the state based mostly on the average number of children in attendance on any particular day. Gov. Newsom last Friday issued an executive order indicating that school districts could get reimbursement from the state despite being closed. But to do so they have to meet a series of conditions, including offering if possible distance learning, child care for parents who have no other alternatives and making sure that children get meals they normally eat at school.

On Monday, county superintendents participated in a conference call with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, and other state officials from the California Dept. of Education and advisors to Gov. Newsom to discuss the executive order. On Tuesday, the department is expected to issue more detailed guidelines on what the state expects districts to do to meet its requirements.

Under normal conditions, rural districts and the students they serve already face enormous challenge. As an EdSource series on rural education has documented, rural districts experience higher school drop out, suspension and chronic absenteeism rates. Fewer students meet the entrance requirements to the state’s colleges and an universities. On top of that, higher rates of poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence and mental health challenges also add to the burden districts face in trying to ensure that students succeed.

Beginning this week, many urban districts that have closed their schools are providing “grab-and-go” meals to students where parents or older students themselves could pick up the meals at a school site. Some are partnering with city agencies to provide child care for parents who have no other alternatives.

But for rural districts where students and families often live miles from the school, often requiring travel in mountainous or other remote areas, that kind of meal services is not likely to work. As a result, school districts are trying to work with churches and community groups to set up meal delivery systems and child care in remote areas.

In Siskiyou County along the Oregon border, all but two of the county’s 25 districts plan to close over the next week, said county school superintendent Kermith Walters. Districts plan to provide “grab-and-go” lunches at community centers and school sites, and families are making arrangements for child care with neighbors, friends and relatives.

It’s been tough balancing the needs of students, teachers and families — some in extremely remote areas, he said. One of the districts, Forks of Salmon Elementary, doesn’t even have electricity — the school relies on a diesel generator.

“In rural communities, the school is the hub. If you close the school you close the whole community,” he said. “So now it’s a question of, what are we going to do now? … It’s a crazy time. We’re just trying to meet the needs of our students and staff. Their health and safety is our No. 1 priority.”

Figuring out what to about child care is a challenge in Lassen County, in the northeast of the state, where hundreds of parents work at federal and state prisons, and cannot work from home in order to take care of their children.

“We already don’t have enough child care in this county,” Gunderson said. “So right now we’re trying to navigate that, trying to figure out how we’re going to make it work.”

Birdsall, of the county superintendent association, said school administrators are beginning to accept that the state doesn’t have answers to every challenge. “At the beginning there was more frustration about the changing guidance or the lack of guidance,” he said. “But people are recognizing that this is so unprecedented that no one has a stockpile of answers in a drawer somewhere.”

Daniel Willis and Sydney Johnson contributed data to this story.

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