Photo: Grant Coffin
Indian Diggings Elementary School classroom in Gold Country, with plastic shields on desks to enforce Covid-19 safety protocols.
This story was updated on Dec. 3 to include information on Irvine Unified.

The surge in Covid-19 cases in California is coming at exactly the wrong time for school districts contemplating reopening schools for in-person instruction.

Before the surge, the majority of students in the state were still getting classes via distance learning, but schools were reopening at an accelerating pace. Many others districts were looking to the beginning of January, after the winter break, as the date when they could possibly bring more students back to school.

With January just a month away, those plans are now shrouded in uncertainty. Especially in the wake of Gov. Newsom’s grim projections on Monday, including a possible stay-at-home order, the odds are low that the virus will be sufficiently under control, and counties will get the green light to bring students back to school after the winter break.

Over the past few weeks, Santa Ana Unified, one the state’s largest districts with 50,000 students, had begun bringing small groups of students to campus for its “Learning Labs”. However, the district planned to open in January, teaching more students using a hybrid model combining in-person with distance learning. But those plans are now on hold, school officials said.

Another large district — San Bernardino City Unified, with 53,000 students — has gone a step further by announcing that its schools will remain in distance learning mode for the rest of the school year. That means by the time students start school next fall, most will have been out of regular school for nearly 18 months.

Safety, interim superintendent Harold Volkommer explained, was the most important consideration. “The number of confirmed cases is rising steadily, with an anticipated and continued increase due to the holiday and flu seasons,” he said, acknowledging the “longer-than-originally-expected use of distance learning as our primary instructional delivery model.”

No other large district has announced a similar drastic action. But with the pandemic at its peak, and likely to get worse, the specter of more schools being closed for in-person instruction until the end of the school year, other than to small groups of high-needs students or to elementary schools that have received waivers to open, is now a prospect that more school administrators — and parents — may have to face.

This week, the public interest law firm Public Counsel filed a lawsuit on behalf of several Black and Latino students from Oakland and Los Angeles, itemizing the shortcomings of distance learning. It charged that the state has “abdicated its responsibility” in denying students “the basic educational equality guaranteed to them by the California Constitution.”

But regardless of its outcome, the lawsuit will be powerless to slow the virus’ spread.

Just a month ago, the number of schools bringing at least some students back to their campuses was increasing. Only 9 of the state’s 58 counties were in the Tier One “purple” zone. That meant that under state rules, two-thirds of California’s students were in schools that were allowed to bring back students for in-person instruction in regular classes.

Most districts did not take advantage of this opportunity, for a range of reasons. In many districts, teachers through their unions remain strongly opposed to opening classes for safety reasons. Not all parents necessarily support opening schools either. And in many cases, individual counties and districts, most notably Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest, have set stricter standards than the state for in-person classes.

L.A. Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner, along with superintendents of several other of the state’s largest districts, last month sent a letter to Gov. Newsom asking the state to set a long list of “common standards” for all school districts, including clear guidelines for testing and contact tracing, along with additional funding to implement them.  Neither the standards they are seeking nor more funding seem forthcoming anytime soon.

But an EdSource survey of 58 counties at the end of October found that all or most school districts in 21 counties — overwhelmingly in more remote, rural areas of the state, with the notable exceptions of Orange and San Diego counties — were bringing back students for at least some in-person instruction, or were planning to do so within days or weeks.

In recent months, numerous research reports have concluded that schools are not the primary drivers of spreading the coronavirus.

But that doesn’t mean there is no risk at all. Administrators have had to balance the pressures they feel to bring students back to school against the relative risk that in-person instruction presents to teachers and other staff, and to older children especially — and to their families.

Most public health officials, including the most prominent, Dr. Anthony Fauci, have stressed the importance of opening up school campuses. “The default position should be to try as best as possible, within reason, to keep the children in school, or to get them back to school,” he reiterated over the weekend in an interview on ABC’s This Week.

But that statement, with qualifiers such “as best as possible” and “within reason,” is hardly definitive, leaving school and elected officials with wide latitude in deciding what to do.

Complicating the decision-making process is that there is rarely unanimity in a community about whether schools should reopen.

“I have seven board members, 3500 teachers and thousands of parents, and they all have different opinions,” Chris Hoffman, superintendent of the 65,000 student Elk Grove Unified District near Sacramento, said recently in an interview for EdSource’s podcast “This Week in California”. “That is just the reality. There is no set opinion.”

The district had negotiated an agreement with its teachers’ union that if Sacramento County entered the “orange” tier, teachers would be willing to come back to school for in-person instruction by mid-November. “I really thought we would have kids back in school by then,” Hoffman said.

The virus upset all those plans. Instead of being in the orange tier, the county is now in the purple tier. “We are not giving up,” said Hoffman. “We want to get our kids back. There are so many benefits to having them with us in person.”

But if in-person instruction gets delayed much beyond January, he said, “I do believe that the further you go, more and more families will say, ‘it (distance learning) has worked until this point; our kids are safe,’ and choose to stay in this mode. That will not surprise me at all.”

Under seemingly contradictory state regulations, if schools in counties in the “purple” tier had already reopened for in-person instruction, they can remain open. But if schools had not reopened before their counties were designated purple, they now cannot open schools until their counties are back in the “red” tier for at least two weeks.

In Orange County, Irvine Unified affirmed that the purple tier designation in the county won’t affect schools in the district that had already opened.  Superintendent Terry Walker said schools are not responsible for the increase in positive cases in the county.  “While we have experienced a slight increase in student and staff cases after the Thanksgiving Break,” he wrote in a message to the school community, “there is little to no person-to-person transmission in schools or other facilities.”

But as the pandemic reaches crisis levels, some districts are feeling pressure to close schools they had previously opened. That’s happening even in Marin County, one of the seven counties that has so far escaped the purple tier designation. For example, Miller Creek School District, an elementary district with just over 2,000 students in San Rafael just north of San Francisco, has suspended in-person classes until the end of 2020 as positive cases in the county rise.

“Given the local surge in cases, the recent travel recommendation for a 14-day quarantine upon return to the county, and competing instructional demands within our schools, the district has made the proactive decision to return to remote learning for all students starting Monday, November 30th and to continue remotely through December,” superintendent Becky Rosales explained in a Thanksgiving Day post to the district’s website.

For now, all students in the district are back to distance learning. When they will be able to return to school is unknown.

Most of California’s 6.2 million public school students, and many more in private and parochial schools, are similarly in the dark.

To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.

Share Article

Comments (11)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

We welcome your comments. All comments are moderated for civility, relevance and other considerations. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. Ana Rodriguez 9 months ago9 months ago

    I live in the Bay Area. I have 3 kids in school and I am disgusted at how teachers are using the pandemic to not do their actual jobs. Every private school is back for in-person learning and not one public school has opened back up. The parents are the actual teachers and I'm sick of it. Uploading 5 to 6 assignments a day for each kid is ridiculous. There are parents who actually work … Read More

    I live in the Bay Area. I have 3 kids in school and I am disgusted at how teachers are using the pandemic to not do their actual jobs. Every private school is back for in-person learning and not one public school has opened back up. The parents are the actual teachers and I’m sick of it. Uploading 5 to 6 assignments a day for each kid is ridiculous. There are parents who actually work and can’t dedicate 5 to 6 hours a day to homework.

    I am at a point I don’t care about the assignments; my kids will log in for distance learning and if that’s what we can get done that day, then so be it. I also hear from my best friend who works for HR for the district that teachers and employees are getting Covid. Why?? You don’t work at the office anymore? You not being exposed to the “students” who are supposedly going to infect you! That just tells and shows that these people who are so concerned about their safety are traveling or visiting other people out of their households. Stop using lame excuses and get back to work!

  2. K McDonald 9 months ago9 months ago

    Meanwhile in places like Apple Valley, cases are at 1,400 per 100k residents and the school district is considering opening in less than 2 weeks. The local hospitals are overloaded with covid cases and a lot of children come in sick with Covid. So how are children not spreading it? One school in apple valley that had reopened had so many faculty with covid that they had to shut down because they couldn't operate. For … Read More

    Meanwhile in places like Apple Valley, cases are at 1,400 per 100k residents and the school district is considering opening in less than 2 weeks.

    The local hospitals are overloaded with covid cases and a lot of children come in sick with Covid. So how are children not spreading it? One school in apple valley that had reopened had so many faculty with covid that they had to shut down because they couldn’t operate.

    For being in the field of education, so many in this field are being driven by pressure to open.

  3. Brenda Lebsack 10 months ago10 months ago

    Kimmy, I had to laugh at your sarcasm. I am a public school teacher in California and what you are saying is true. When I attended union conferences (CTA), the focus was social justice, human rights, identity politics and how to influence students with these ideologies. Academics was a "by the way" afterthought. I'm not saying there aren't incredible innovative teachers in California who really care about kids and academics, but … Read More

    Kimmy, I had to laugh at your sarcasm. I am a public school teacher in California and what you are saying is true. When I attended union conferences (CTA), the focus was social justice, human rights, identity politics and how to influence students with these ideologies. Academics was a “by the way” afterthought.
    I’m not saying there aren’t incredible innovative teachers in California who really care about kids and academics, but (in my opinion) those teachers are not the ones entrenched in union agendas and politics. For the union elites, students and even teachers, are just a means to an end.

  4. Mike 10 months ago10 months ago

    Louis, do you plan to regularly post about California’s plan to return to school? As Raleigh, NC residents, we were planning to move to Los Angeles in February. Unfortunately, the pandemic has spoiled our plans. If California doesn’t take education seriously throughout COVID-19, then we may decide to cancel the plans entirely. We’d love to stay updated!

  5. Kimmy B 10 months ago10 months ago

    Just keep them closed permanently. The teachers are working so hard, and as long as they are fully funded and working hard, who cares if the kids learn anything? California public education is about the employees, not the kids. Newsom has made that very clear.

  6. Brenda Lebsack 10 months ago10 months ago

    Wow-compelling comments. Larry- thank you for the stats. It makes sense, however, I just learned that the definition of “fact” changed according to our “National Sex Ed Standards of 2020”. It now means an “opinion or hypothesis agreed upon by experts in the field.” Empirical data is no longer the determinant of “facts.” Maybe this same rule is being applied to Covid? The “experts opinions” are what matters most and … Read More

    Wow-compelling comments.
    Larry- thank you for the stats. It makes sense, however, I just learned that the definition of “fact” changed according to our “National Sex Ed Standards of 2020”. It now means an “opinion or hypothesis agreed upon by experts in the field.” Empirical data is no longer the determinant of “facts.”

    Maybe this same rule is being applied to Covid? The “experts opinions” are what matters most and since we are all human, unbiased objectivity would be impossible to achieve with this “new definition.”
    https://www.brenda4kids.com/our-media/articles/outrageous-national-sex-ed-standards-teach-kids-to-choose-gender

  7. Larry Sand 10 months ago10 months ago

    We need to follow the scientists, not fearmongers and those who have an agenda. For example, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield asserts that “school is one of the safest places” for children. Also, drawing on an assessment of data from 31 countries, UNICEF maintains that “there is strong evidence that, with basic safety measures in place, the net benefits of keeping schools open outweigh the costs of closing them.” … Read More

    We need to follow the scientists, not fearmongers and those who have an agenda. For example, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield asserts that “school is one of the safest places” for children. Also, drawing on an assessment of data from 31 countries, UNICEF maintains that “there is strong evidence that, with basic safety measures in place, the net benefits of keeping schools open outweigh the costs of closing them.”

    Moreover, the findings of a major British study reveal that it was a mistake to close schools. “The results demonstrate no evidence of serious harms from COVID-19 to adults in close contact with children, compared to those living in households without children. This has implications for determining the benefit-harm balance of children attending school in the COVID-19 pandemic.” In October’s Great Barrington Declaration, world renowned scientists noted that keeping children out of school is a “grave injustice.”

    For more, please read this – https://californiapolicycenter.org/science-or-science-fiction/

  8. Ken Horowitz 10 months ago10 months ago

    Most important is teaching our students about contemporary health issues including traditional and non-traditional methods of treatment. A vaccine is only a small step to a much bigger problem. All of us need a wake-up call that our environment, including unhealthy food choices, lack of sleep, and toxins in our environment, has compromised our immune system to react to these recent attacks by viruses. It ia time to get health classes back into the curriculum … Read More

    Most important is teaching our students about contemporary health issues including traditional and non-traditional methods of treatment. A vaccine is only a small step to a much bigger problem. All of us need a wake-up call that our environment, including unhealthy food choices, lack of sleep, and toxins in our environment, has compromised our immune system to react to these recent attacks by viruses. It ia time to get health classes back into the curriculum as requirements for graduation instead of focusing on other subjects. These health courses are vey easy to teach online.

    Having health is our greatest asset. Let’s focus on prevention. Too many of our students are dying because they lack the proper education. Please support a Health curriculum requirement at all levels of education.

    Dr. Ken Horowitz, Foothill College

  9. Ken Johnson 10 months ago10 months ago

    Our district, Manteca Unified, can’t get subs like other school districts. They refuse to work for us. Some of our kindergartners have had 4 different teachers this year. Now that’s sad! That’s because they can’t hire teachers who will join our district, let alone subs. Teachers are refusing to sub during their prep. Why is it so toxic in Manteca Unified? Our district says they don’t need to follow the CDC guidelines because they’re … Read More

    Our district, Manteca Unified, can’t get subs like other school districts. They refuse to work for us. Some of our kindergartners have had 4 different teachers this year. Now that’s sad! That’s because they can’t hire teachers who will join our district, let alone subs. Teachers are refusing to sub during their prep.

    Why is it so toxic in Manteca Unified? Our district says they don’t need to follow the CDC guidelines because they’re just guidelines. They don’t take temperatures of students before school. Students are supposed to complete a health screening every day before arriving on campus but teachers aren’t told which students haven’t filled out the form until after the student has left school for the day! You can’t make this stuff up!

    They had a basketball team practice in violation of CIF rules and without wearing masks. One player went to the hospital with COVID. The district said if you’re not maskless and less than 6 feet for more than 15 minutes you don’t need to quarantine. A teacher is positive and they aren’t quarantining the classes.

    The district refuses to listen to safety protocols proposed by the teachers. Our teachers and support staff are leaving in droves, and they can’t get subs. That says it all. By the way, I know several teachers who are infected. Many parents have contacted me to express their concerns about the system. They started an online academy and it’s horrible. The software is so buggy, parents are pulling their kids out of that! https://www.change.org/p/manteca-unified-school-board-close-musd-schools-until-safe-to-reopen?utm_content=cl_sharecopy_25975187_en-US%3A0&recruiter=8705934&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink&utm_campaign=tap_basic_share

  10. Christopher A Ross 10 months ago10 months ago

    I would like to commend our real heroes in this pandemic. Private schools teachers who have taken the risk for our children and teach in person every day. These teachers are the true leaders.

  11. tomm 10 months ago10 months ago

    Pretty likely the CTA will strong-arm the Governor to keep schools closed even though more and more studies are showing that teacher infection rates are no different than the general population. Schools in European countries are open, and kids have mild symptoms and a nearly zero fatality rate. Obviously the Governor is not "following the science." If only the CTA had pushed teaching to be an essential service then, they would be first or second … Read More

    Pretty likely the CTA will strong-arm the Governor to keep schools closed even though more and more studies are showing that teacher infection rates are no different than the general population. Schools in European countries are open, and kids have mild symptoms and a nearly zero fatality rate. Obviously the Governor is not “following the science.” If only the CTA had pushed teaching to be an essential service then, they would be first or second or third in line to get a COVID vaccine! Oh well, call it bad karma, I think.