Millions of California students to be out of school as torrent of districts announce closures

March 13, 2020

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The power of local control of schools in California is on full display as a growing number of school districts, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Oakland, declare that they will be closing, at least temporarily, in response to the coronavirus crisis enveloping the state.

All schools in Orange County, Santa Clara County and Sacramento County will also be closing, and further announcements from county offices are education are expected.  In fact, 29 out of 30 of California’s largest school districts, serving nearly 2 million students, will be closed beginning Monday. Only Kern High School District in Bakersfield chose to remain open.

Out of nearly 1,000 school districts, districts remaining open tend to be smaller districts in less populous, more rural parts of the state, where for the most part there have been no positive coronavirus cases.

But most local education leaders decided to move to close schools  despite a reluctance on the part of state government to order or even recommend that schools close, even as multiple colleges and universities in California have either moved to online instruction, or intend to do so shortly.

With over 6 million students in its public schools, the consequences of school closures are enormous, not only for the students and school personnel themselves, but for the social fabric and economy of the state itself. 

In an unusual announcement Friday morning, L.A. school superintendent Austin Beutner and San Diego superintendent Cindy Marten issued a joint statement.

“California has now entered a critical new phase in the fight to stop the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic,” they said. “There is evidence the virus is already present in the communities we serve, and our efforts now must be aimed at preventing its spread. We believe closing the state’s two largest school districts will make an important contribution to this effort.”

The two districts’ decision followed ones made on Thursday by San Francisco Unified and West Contra Costa Unified, which includes Richmond, that they would close for three weeks, which includes a week of already scheduled spring break.

Some districts like Berkeley Unified and South Pasadena Unified made similar decisions yesterday evening, although details of closures vary from district to district, including the length.

Others like Sacramento City and nearby Natomas Unified ordered closures of a few days, but leaving open the option of a more extended closure. In many cases the districts are also launching some variation of keeping learning ongoing online.

A major issue facing school districts considering closing is that they fear losing state funding which is based on the number of students in attendance. Late Friday afternoon, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order saying closed schools could still receive funding, but only if they met a series of conditions, including providing students with “high quality educational opportunities” through distance learning or independent, continuing to provide school meals, and “to the extent practicable arranging for the supervision of students during school hours.”   It was far from clear how school districts would be able to satisfy those conditions.

At a briefing in Sacramento on Thursday morning Newsom, showing extraordinary mastery of the multi-dimensional aspects of the pandemic, suggested that closing schools should be a last resort — and something that the state was not encouraging.

In that sense,  California is adopting a different strategy, at least so far, compared to several other states — notably Ohio, Maryland, New Mexico, and Michigan — that have ordered their schools closed for three weeks beginning on Monday.   Governors in Kentucky and Georgia — have recommended that schools close but so far have not mandated that they do so. The pressure intensified on Friday to close schools in the nation’s largest districts, including in New York City

Yesterday Newsom issued an executive order limiting gatherings in the state to no more than 250 people, but said the state needed to “be very thoughtful and considerate” when it comes to closing schools, because of its “broad impacts.”

He specifically referred to the challenge of how to feed students who participate in the free and reduced priced meals program if schools are closed, and ensuring that children have “real caregivers to secure their needs if indeed they are back home.”

Newsom also worried about the impact of having parents who play crucial health and safety roles having to be at home taking care of their children, especially at a time when the state is confronting an unprecedented health crisis.

“If you are a caregiver, a police officer, firefighter, emergency room doctor, nurse, nurse practitioner, and you have kids, you may have no capacity to have those kids at home without your own presence being there,” he said. “You are then no longer a part of the workforce.”

In the closures announced yesterday, most districts indicated that they would make arrangements of some kind to serve meals to students, even if they weren’t in school.

San Francisco school officials said they made the decision in the face of what it called “an unprecedented health crisis in our community, and new information is surfacing rapidly.”

“It is likely our community will be seeing many more cases of COVID-19 in the coming weeks and months and this will require a measured, sustained response,” the district’s online statement said.

Attempting to address the concerns Newsom raised, the district also indicated it would arrange to provide meals to students, and “what, if any, childcare options” the district could offer to families before the regularly scheduled spring break begins in two weeks.

In Berkeley, apparently what swayed the district was the announcement Wednesday of four new coronovirus cases in Alameda Country where the district is based.

“Please know that the Board of Education and I do not take this decision lightly,” Berkeley’s new superintendent Brent Stephens wrote in a letter, reflecting the bad choices districts are having to make “After considering guidance from health officials, we wrestled a great deal to measure the costs and benefits of closing our schools.”

The decision in Los Angeles to close its schools for two weeks came a day after the United Teachers Los Angeles, representing most teachers in the district, called on the district to close its schools.  The board had already given Supt. Austin Beutner emergency powers to close schools if necessary and the district was publicly preparing for such a possibility.   Earlier this week, for example, Beutner announced an agreement with KCET, the public television station in Los Angeles, to provide programming in the event the district closed its schools.

With the pending closure, those plans will now presumably be activated.

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