Pace of California schools planning to open with distance learning accelerates

July 15, 2020

Before the pandemic, students work in a Santa Ana Unified classroom in a way that would be unimaginable today.

The pace of school districts that will start the coming school year primarily with distance learning is accelerating in California. In recent days, districts serving at least 1.4 million of the state’s 6.2 million public school students have announced that they will be teaching students remotely, at least to begin the school year.

The rapid increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in the state just weeks before most school districts are due to open for the 2020-21 school year appears to be the driving factor in districts deciding to continue online learning for most or all of their students.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said he recognized the health realities that many districts are facing, and applauded districts for “putting safety first.”

“I do think that if school had to open tomorrow, most of our districts would open with distance learning and that decision I think is a good one,” Thurmond said in a briefing on Wednesday.

The reliance on distance learning this fall presents educators with profound challenges for how to engage students and provide them with an effective education, while limiting the “learning loss” they might suffer.  It also means that for several more months parents will have to somehow balance working and caring for children who during normal times would have been at school.

On Tuesday, Long Beach Unified, Santa Ana Unified, Stockton Unified, and Lodi Unified, with a combined enrollment of about 200,000 students were among the latest districts to announce they would open next month via distance learning, following the decision to do so by Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified a day earlier.

On Wednesday, the Sacramento County Office of Education announced that all 13 school districts in the county, including Sacramento City Unified, would start the school year with students learning from home. The districts together enroll about 250,000 students. They joined neighboring Stanislaus County, where all its 25 districts, including Modesto City Schools and Turlock Unified, will open with distance learning for its 100,000 students. San Francisco Unified also announced it would open with distance learning in the fall.

Thurmond acknowledged that “conditions have changed dramatically” since the California Department of Education issued its guidance for school opening last month. “We know that in many communities throughout our state, we’re seeing high rates of infection in the community,” he said.

At the same time he said there counties that don’t have many positive coronavirus cases, and where schools could reopen using guidance from health experts. “We believe those schools should continue their plans to open safely,” he said.

At least 75 school districts have announced that distance learning will be their default instruction mode this fall. That is just a fraction of the over 1,000 districts in the state. But those that have announced include one half of the state’s 30 largest school districts, including the largest, Los Angeles Unified. Most districts in the state have yet to state how they will open.

Many of the districts that have decided on distance learning are still hoping that they will be able to open for in-classroom instruction sometime in the fall. Oakland Unified, for example, will open via remote learning on Aug. 10 in what officials say will be an “opening phase” that will last four weeks.

Enrollment figures for Los Angeles Unified and several other districts include students who are attending charter schools, and it is not yet clear what charter schools around the state are planning for the fall.

Long Beach’s decision was especially notable because it is scheduled to open on Aug. 31, which is nearly seven weeks away, later than most districts planning to implement distance learning.

Jill Baker, who took over as superintendent on July 1, explained that “this decision was a hard one to make,” saying the district would offer remote instruction to all students at least until Oct. 5.

“Covid-19 cases continue to increase, hospitalizations are on the rise and the percentage of positive tests is also climbing,” she said. “In full protection of our district staff and students, we have decided that beginning with online instruction and closely monitoring the health data as October 5th approaches will be our best next step.”

Santa Ana Unified’s starting date of Aug. 10 is less than a month away, which put additional pressure on the district to make a decision. “The district will pivot entirely to distance learning to start the upcoming school year out of concern for the safety and well-being of the entire school community,” Superintendent Jerry Almendariz explained in a video message. “This decision comes as the number of COVID-19 cases throughout Santa Ana, and across California and the rest of the country, continues to climb at an alarming rate. Thus, a full distance learning model is the safest option for our Santa Ana students, parents and staff.”

Some districts planning to be mostly online this fall might also bring in smaller groups of high-needs students to school to try to limit the learning loss that has been a major concern since the start of the pandemic — but only if it is safe to do so.

Other school districts, including some of the state’s largest, are still planning to offer what is called “hybrid instruction,” which involves a mix of distance learning and in-person instruction.

An indication of how quickly the landscape is changing, just last week Elk Grove Unified near Sacramento, the state’s fifth-largest district, announced last week that it would offer two models for the fall term — “transitional learning” and “full distance learning.” The transitional learning approach, the district’s superintendent Chris Hoffman explained in an online letter, referred to “in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible under existing health conditions and guidelines regarding social distancing, sanitation and personal protective equipment.”

However, less than a week later, Elk Grove joined a dozen other districts in Sacramento County in announcing that it would open with distance learning only.

Long Beach’s Baker said the decision this week by neighboring Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified to open schools via distance learning did have an impact on her district’s decision, but it wasn’t the only factor.

“We pay close attention to the decisions of other districts, but we always filter the decisions of others through the needs of our community,” she said. She also tried to reassure parents that the district’s online curriculum, which would include daily live lessons, grading and attendance, would be “more intense and consistent” than what students experienced following the district’s rapid closure in the spring.

State superintendent Thurmond said he understood why some districts have decided to start the school year with distance learning. “We know, for example, in the case of Los Angeles County, the data shows that the rate of case infection is quite high, much higher than in many other communities. And so, we applaud the superintendent and the school boards in Los Angeles and San Diego for making the decision to say let’s open safely.”

EdSource senior reporter Diana Lambert contributed to this report. 

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