Gov. Gavin Newsom has given school districts some reassurance they have been waiting for: They will be paid for days they shut down to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.
Newsom’s executive order late Friday, covering reimbursement for lost school days, includes conditions, including continuing to provide subsidized meals to low-income students, that some education officials say must be quickly clarified. The announcement came hours after dozens of school districts announced they would be shutting starting Monday.
EdSource has estimated that as of Sunday night, more than 5.1 million students (84 percent) in two thirds of districts (at least 599) will be shut down this week. With the exception of the Kern High School District in Bakersfield, 24 of the 25 largest school districts will be closed. (Go here to check the status of your district.)
With few exceptions, the districts will close for two or three weeks. State and county health officials had encouraged closures in the hope that reducing close contact among students would slow an alarming spread of the coronavirus in California as well as reduce the risk of infection for teachers and school staff. As of Saturday, state health officials had reported 288 confirmed cases of coronavirus infections, with five deaths.
Some districts had hesitated to close schools without some confidence that they would be held harmless for a loss of revenue. Word that Newsom would agree and encouragement from medical experts prompted them to act quickly.
“I applaud Governor Newsom for the action in his Executive Order to provide schools with the tools they need to continue providing students with high-quality education while keeping them safe,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond stated in a press release from the governor. “This allows schools to put safety first without jeopardizing the financial resources needed to meet the needs of our students.”
The California Teachers Association responded enthusiastically as well. “We applaud the governor for funding schools even if they have to physically close and for thinking about the learning, fiscal and community impacts in his thoughtful executive order,” Claudia Briggs, assistant manager for communications for CTA., wrote in an email. “We hope districts make the decision to close to support the containment of the Novel Coronavirus Disease.”
Others, however, expressed concerns about wording in the executive order. It qualifies funding to districts continuing to offer “high quality education opportunities” through options like online learning and independent study “to the extent feasible.” And it said that districts also should provide for supervision of students during normal school hours “to the extent practicable” and be prepared to deliver school meals in unspecified non-cafeteria settings.
The implication is that “somehow districts must maintain operations, and that confuses us,” said Sara Bachez, chief governmental relations officer for the California Association of School Business Officials. “It’s unclear what’s being asked of teachers to do. We need to treat this as a crisis. To ask us to do beyond our ability is not putting staff and students first.”
In his press release, Newsom stressed that funding comes with an obligation. “The needs of California kids must be met regardless of whether their school is open or closed,” he said. “School districts that choose to close must use state educational dollars to quickly meet the needs of children and families.”
At his press conference Sunday, Newsom said that children’s nutritional needs must be met and that he knows some districts closed without plans for providing meals for low-income students — breakfast as well as lunch. Acknowledging “logistical and siting issues,” he said the state would recruit nonprofit organizations and private food providers to help districts meet their obligation.
“It’s one thing to say you have a plan, it’s another to actually deliver on that plan,” he said. “And with respect, not everybody that closed had that plan. So we are making sure we supplement that.”
Most K-12 schools don’t have the capacity to provide online learning, and many families lack broadband internet and home computing to participate and, in the rush this week, little time to prepare for two or three weeks of providing homework.
But, as EdSource reported, some districts have been looking into options, including take-home projects and partnerships with local media. Los Angeles Unified may be about to do what Newsom had in mind. It announced last week it will partner with public television stations KCET and PBS SoCal to broadcast educational programming to students. Similar programming will also be available in other parts of the state. Lesson plans and take-home assignments will accompany the programming. Superintendent Austin Beutner said in a statement that many students will be able to continue learning on Monday.
Kevin Gordon, president of Capitol Advisors Group, an education consulting company based in Sacramento, said, “Absent any clarification, the order absolutely implies a raft of new mandates in exchange for fiscal protection.” But after conversations with Newsom’s aides, he felt confident that’s not their intent and is optimistic the wording will be clarified. The executive order gives departments of Education and Human Services until March 17 to issue guidance on carrying out the order. A lot will be riding on the interpretation of “feasible” and “practicable.”
The executive order responded to several concerns that the Education Coalition, a cross-section of nine education organizations, had raised in a letter to the administration and legislators on Friday:
- Newsom reaffirmed that districts would be reimbursed for providing meals to low-income students even though schools will be closed. More than 60 percent of the state’s students qualify for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch under the federal school meals program. The coalition, meanwhile, wants assurance the state will cover additional costs.
- The state would not penalize districts if they could not meet the required 175 days of annual instructional time. The Legislature lowered the minimum from 180 days in 2008, during the Great Recession. Most districts have restored the calendar to 180 days plus days for staff development.
- The state would waive the laws and regulations that would prevent districts from offering online instruction and independent studies to students during their shutdown. The executive order said that the guidance should address equity gaps with distance learning, since some students will not have access to broadband and devices.
The letter from the Education Coalition calls for the Legislature and Newsom to act on issues not covered in the executive order:
- Suspending state assessments — the Smarter Balanced tests and the Next Generation Science Standards tests — this year.
- Recognizing the impact of the closures on chronic absenteeism and other measures on the California School Dashboard.
- Covering a loss of revenue , beyond school closures, from students whose parents may continue keeping them home. The state bases funding to schools on average daily attendance.
- Providing additional funding to hire additional counselors and address a critical shortage of school nurses.