Photo: Brian Feulner/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris
Kai Sanchez, 14, takes an online Spanish class from one of her teachers at Half Moon Bay High School on April 1, 2020 Though most California students are learning from home this year, most school districts in the state have reverted back to A-F grading.

As coronavirus cases spike across California, some school districts are making the decision to keep campuses closed to most students and to educate them online next school year.

Districts in Los Angeles County, which has more coronavirus cases than any county in the state, are preparing for the possibility of classes being completely online at the start of the school year. In neighboring San Bernardino County, its school district this week announced classes would resume next month online. 

In Northern California, East Side Union High School District in San Jose, the region’s largest high school district, as well as a few others, have made similar calls. West Contra Costa Unified, which serves 32,000 students in the East Bay, announced this week it will allow only a limited number of special needs students to return to campuses when the semester begins August 17. As conditions allow for a safe return, buildings will be open to small groups of students with a support system of adults for each group to ensure social distancing. The hope is to eventually expand to full in-person instruction for all students when it is safer, said Superintendent Matthew Duffy in an email to parents.

Coronavirus numbers have peaked in recent weeks in California, reaching 304,297 cases of Covid-19 and 6,850 deaths as of July 9. 

Health concerns associated with the increased number of coronavirus cases have put school districts’ plans in flux, with many planning for different instructional models they can move between depending on the number of coronavirus infections in their communities or direction from county health officials.

“I want to be very clear, we want students at school,” West Contra Costa’s Duffy wrote in his email. “We need students at school. Many students need to be at school for a variety of reasons: more engaging educational opportunities, socio-emotional support, access to meals and health care. However, with the rising number of Covid-19 cases in California since the easing of restrictions, it is clear that asymptomatic transmission in close quarters is a key concern. In all good conscience, the safety of students and staff must be our top priority.”

Oakland Unified announced Friday that the school year will start Aug. 10 with students learning from home. All students will work from home for up to a month while the district prepares school sites for safe operation during the pandemic. This also will allow staff to have additional safety training and other professional development, according to a press release from the district. However, the plans are not final, as negotiations with the teachers union are ongoing.

“You might think that with Covid, this decision would be easy, but it’s not,” said Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell in a statement. “We want to have our students back in class as soon as possible and welcoming them back to school has to be safe. But there is inherent tension between the ever-changing science, keeping students and staff safe, and providing the services that students need.”

East Side Union High School District in San Jose is beginning the year with distance learning, with a full day of online instruction four days each week.

Schools will be open for counseling and in-person instruction for homeless and special needs students. Students without broadband access can study and use space in libraries to access the internet. There will be some opportunities for small group instruction, such as a music class.

 Superintendent Chris Funk said that surveys showing between 40% and 48% of students, parents and staff didn’t feel comfortable returning to school guided the school board’s decision. The district serves four of the zip codes with the highest numbers of Covid-19 infections in Santa Clara County, where mainly low-income persons of color live, he said.

“High school kids are not that different from 21-to-25-year-olds who are raising the coronavirus rate,” he said. “They can transmit it to each other and expose teachers to the virus.”

Alum Rock Union School District, also in San Jose, will continue distance learning for about 90% of its students in the fall, with in-person instruction available for students who are homeless, in foster programs, have special needs, or who are recent immigrants who have little fluency in English and who need additional resources, officials said at a virtual presentation this week. The district will reassess in the spring whether more students can return to on-campus instruction.

San Bernardino City Unified, about 60 miles east of downtown Los Angeles in San Bernardino County, has decided to start the school year with distance learning and no in-person classes.

Harold Vollkommer, interim superintendent of that district, wrote in a message to district parents that the school board unanimously approved that plan at a recent meeting. He also said that, at some point after the beginning of the school year, the district may begin offering “in-person check-in and support services for small groups of students” and could eventually transition to a hybrid model. But that’s “if and only when we can do so safely.”

“The date for this transition has not been determined and will be made in the context of our community’s needs in consultation with the department of public health and based on final approval by our board,” he added. “And for those families who desire distance learning for an extended period of time, we will offer that program as well.”

Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County’s public health director, told district superintendents in a private phone call this week that every district should “have plans in place to continue distance learning for 100% of the time,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

“Given where our numbers are, we would be irresponsible if we didn’t say to you that you have to have the backup plan ready,” she said.

Administrators at the county’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, have so far made no decision on whether to reopen campuses next month. But Superintendent Austin Beutner said this week in a televised address that it’s “reasonable to assume” that instruction will have at least some online components.

The union representing teachers in L.A. Unified, meanwhile, has gone a step further and called for campuses to remain closed when the school year begins Aug. 18.

“We all want to physically open schools and be back with our students, but lives hang in the balance. Safety has to be the priority. We need to get this right for our communities,” Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said in a statement.

In nearby Pasadena Unified, administrators were planning as recently as last week to reopen schools in August with a mix of in-person and virtual learning, Superintendent Brian McDonald said in a message to district families.

However, based on community feedback to that plan, Pasadena Unified is now surveying parents to determine their interest in going fully online rather than implementing a hybrid model, spokeswoman Hilda Ramirez Horvath said. 

The California Teachers Association, which represents 310,000 of the state’s teachers, sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and other top state leaders this week, which expressed concern about whether school districts would be ready to return to school safely in the fall. CTA leaders said that many local districts don’t have the necessary resources or capacity to ensure that safety measures are in place to ensure students and teachers don’t get sick.

“Since schools closed in March, CTA has said that the health and safety of our students and educators must always be our top priority and our guiding principle during this crisis,” said the letter signed by CTA President E. Toby Boyd, Vice President David Goldberg and Secretary-Treasurer Leslie Littman. “Much is still being learned about the Covid-19 virus. The recent surge in the infection rate and the closure of indoor activities in 26 counties gives us pause around the state’s preparedness for safe in-person school instruction in a short six- to eight-week time frame.”

While some families are voicing safety concerns, others are urging districts to reopen five days a week to meet the needs of working parents.

Eureka Unified School District in Placer County’s Granite Bay community is planning to reopen its schools for in-person instruction five days a week, with other options for students with health concerns. Placer County, located east of Sacramento, had 982 cases of Covid-19 on July 9, a 70% increase over two weeks.

“Our parents want five days a week, which I think a lot of school districts have found out,” said Ginna Myers, director of curriculum and instruction for the Eureka Unified School District in Placer County. “They are concerned that their kids are losing out on the social emotional aspect of school, as well as concerned about learning loss.”

EdSource reporters John Fensterwald and Theresa Harrington contributed to this report.

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  1. Karen Chin 5 months ago5 months ago

    Has EdSource started a page centralizing school districts’ decisions, as you did for closures in March? Or do you know of one?

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 5 months ago5 months ago

      We have not yet but we will discuss the most useful approach, when what we would report today might be outdated tomorrow. It was easier to report on closures, since the county offices of education coordinated them. Thanks for asking.

  2. Andrew 5 months ago5 months ago

    Others have noted relatively little consideration being given to teacher and staff safety in this process. For politicians, district administrators, or the public cavalier about teacher safety, a financial consideration should arrest their attention: Workers Compensation. If a teacher, paraprofessional, janitor or other school staffer contracts Covid-19 on the job, the District is 100% liable for all medical and hospital expense, in addition to income maintenance, permanent disability and substantial death benefits. In one complicated … Read More

    Others have noted relatively little consideration being given to teacher and staff safety in this process. For politicians, district administrators, or the public cavalier about teacher safety, a financial consideration should arrest their attention: Workers Compensation.

    If a teacher, paraprofessional, janitor or other school staffer contracts Covid-19 on the job, the District is 100% liable for all medical and hospital expense, in addition to income maintenance, permanent disability and substantial death benefits. In one complicated Covid case, these can easily reach seven figures.

    Workers Compensation rather than health insurance covers on-the-job acquired injury or infection. Districts, of course, generally obtain coverage from Workers Comp insurance carriers to meet this duty, but if insurer money runs short, the district makes up the shortfall. The reserves of Comp carriers could easily be quickly exhausted from large claims and such Comp insurers could go into receivership and bankruptcy, leaving the districts holding the financial bag. And Comp insurance premiums would skyrocket as they would ultimately need to exceed the enormously increased cost of benefit payouts provided.

    I am surprised we are not hearing from the Comp carriers on this issue. Their financial stake usually makes them more concerned about employee safety. And I am surprised that nobody else seems to be considering it in the mix. Those who will not adequately address teacher safety because it is a worthy humanitarian focus will find themselves having to face a financial disaster of extraordinary proportions.

    Replies

    • Paul 4 months ago4 months ago

      You raise an excellent point, Andrew. One sticking point is determining whether the source of a given infection was occupational exposure or community spread. That would require sophisticated and expensive genetic testing of virus samples from the teacher, family members, students, other school employees, etc. Even if such testing were feasible outside the context of an academic study, it's unlikely that students' parents, and other school employees, would consent. I wonder whether a court could be … Read More

      You raise an excellent point, Andrew.

      One sticking point is determining whether the source of a given infection was occupational exposure or community spread. That would require sophisticated and expensive genetic testing of virus samples from the teacher, family members, students, other school employees, etc. Even if such testing were feasible outside the context of an academic study, it’s unlikely that students’ parents, and other school employees, would consent. I wonder whether a court could be persuaded without evidence of the genetic similarity of virus samples from multiple people at the same school.

      One reason we aren’t hearing from workers’ compensation insurers is that organizations have been hard at work all along, lobbying for legislation that exempts them from liability for COVID-19 infections. We’re not just talking commercial businesses and employers, but also universities. I wouldn’t be surprised if school districts were also lobbying to avoid liability.

  3. Paul 5 months ago5 months ago

    I'm glad that some education leaders are holding back. Citing European (and especially northern, high-resource) countries as examples makes no sense whatsoever. Health outcomes after school reopening are bound to be better in countries with paid sick leave; income continuation mandates instead of mass unemployment; universal, single-payer health insurance; and smaller (though not non-existent) socioeconomic disparities. For low-income families, who make up a large part of the public school community here in the US, keeping all family … Read More

    I’m glad that some education leaders are holding back.

    Citing European (and especially northern, high-resource) countries as examples makes no sense whatsoever. Health outcomes after school reopening are bound to be better in countries with paid sick leave; income continuation mandates instead of mass unemployment; universal, single-payer health insurance; and smaller (though not non-existent) socioeconomic disparities.

    For low-income families, who make up a large part of the public school community here in the US, keeping all family members home when one family member gets sick is not feasible. Low-income parents lose their wages if they stay home from work, and may well not have jobs to return to. (A critical element of a comprehensive sick leave mandate — paid or unpaid — would be the right to return to one’s job.) The patchwork of temporary federal, state and local leave mandates, and the voluntary policy changes made by some large employers, are of limited practical benefit to the most vulnerable workers.

    Since we as a country made the decision to let tens of millions be laid off, and to try to replace their wages through federally-backed, state-administered unemployment insurance systems rather than an income continuation mandate, parents may be waiting months to receive unemployment benefits. Unemployment insurance systems were designed to minimize benefits, and cannot be turned on a dime to sustain tens of millions of Americans. Here in California, state legislators, who field escalation requests from constituents, report being exasperated by the Employment Development Department’s slow responses. Do we expect students whose parents are struggling economically to shut off their anxiety for the day and perform normally at school?

    Tens of millions of Americans lack health insurance and must depend on a temporary federal mandate if they become infected and seek medical care. That mandate neither eliminates initial, out-of-pocket expenses, nor prevents billing and collection activity by doctors and hospitals. Even if everything works out for a given patient, the federal government, as the payor of last resort, will only pay charges directly related to COVID-19 testing and care — not other tests or medical services often delivered at the same time.

    When a given public school reopens, we can be certain that there won’t be enough paper towels, soap, and hand sanitizer for students and staff to maintain hand hygiene. In the best of times, teachers had to bring their own paper towels, and you’d see discount-store hand soap pumps next to the unfilled soap dispensers in restrooms and beside classroom sinks. Right now, alcohol-based hand sanitizer is in extremely short supply. Prices have doubled or tripled, and even commercial supply companies report a 1-month wait.

    Staggered schedules make no sense unless the teaching staff is doubled. The teacher becomes the vector! For example, if half the class attends in person one week, and the other half, the next week, the teacher has contact with all students during the maximum 14-day COVID-19 incubation period.

    Last but not least, if teachers become sick, they are replaced by substitute teachers. Substitutes are vectors because they serve multiple school sites. At pay rates as low as $100 for a full day, substitute teachers cannot afford to stay home when they are sick. Except in a few large districts like Los Angeles Unified, substitutes are not eligible for employer-paid health insurance. COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes have often been traced to similar, low-wage itinerant workers.

    Wishful thinking and premature reopening of schools could lead to preventable illness and death among students, their families, teachers, and other school employees. In the absence of adequate, European-style economic and health supports, we in the US should wait to reopen our schools.

  4. /Lean 5 months ago5 months ago

    I think school should be open for full time because I don’t think distance learning will help students.

  5. James Lynett 5 months ago5 months ago

    What happened to the original CDC guidelines for reopening? We’ve seen what happens when you don’t have 14 straight days of declining infections, hospitalizations and deaths let alone adequate testing and tracing and you reopen anyway. Just apply those standards to schools reopening and when we reach those benchmarks like they did in Europe we can reopen slowly in monitored phases. We also must have large space child care facilities for working parents especially low income essential workers.

    Replies

    • Jeanie 5 months ago5 months ago

      James Lynett – If it’s not safe to open schools, why would it be safe to open childcare? Childcare facilities have fewer resources than schools have. There’s a double standard. Childcare teachers deserve the same protections that K-12 teachers are asking for.

      • James Lynett 5 months ago5 months ago

        The answer is threefold. One because they would provide much needed child care for parents who must work to support their families and prevent the concurrent economic collapse without those essential workers. Secondly they would be run by the school districts in district facilities that would be better funded, safer and provide a centralized location for services and regular contact with teachers and administrators coupled with meals, exercise and medical/social-emotional staff. Thirdly, it … Read More

        The answer is threefold. One because they would provide much needed child care for parents who must work to support their families and prevent the concurrent economic collapse without those essential workers.

        Secondly they would be run by the school districts in district facilities that would be better funded, safer and provide a centralized location for services and regular contact with teachers and administrators coupled with meals, exercise and medical/social-emotional staff.

        Thirdly, it would provide jobs for those district instructional aides who are not protected from lay-off by the new state budget.

        • Bo Loney 5 months ago5 months ago

          Who knew school was just for free babysitting?

  6. Pat Skaggs 5 months ago5 months ago

    Student, student, students. Yes they are very important when it comes to this virus. What about the teachers – are they not just as important? With out teachers there is no school. There is one of them in each class room along with 30-40 students, horrible odds as you can see. If only one student has the virus it could wipe out the remainder of the students in the class along with that … Read More

    Student, student, students. Yes they are very important when it comes to this virus. What about the teachers – are they not just as important? With out teachers there is no school. There is one of them in each class room along with 30-40 students, horrible odds as you can see. If only one student has the virus it could wipe out the remainder of the students in the class along with that teacher. Putting any one in danger is not acceptable.

    Replies

    • Nikole 5 months ago5 months ago

      I am a teacher and I totally agree. I hardly ever see anything about how the teachers will be supported and my school sent surveys to the families and students about how they feel but not to the teachers. It’s sad to see again teaching being treated as a low-class job in society, and others thinking, "Well they signed up to be a teacher, now deal with it." I really believed this would be the … Read More

      I am a teacher and I totally agree. I hardly ever see anything about how the teachers will be supported and my school sent surveys to the families and students about how they feel but not to the teachers. It’s sad to see again teaching being treated as a low-class job in society, and others thinking, “Well they signed up to be a teacher, now deal with it.” I really believed this would be the time that society would open their eyes and see our hard work that we do for almost free … and no one even knows all of the hurdles to even become a teacher then to be treated as an animal on a leash.

      That’s why I quit my job yesterday; it was a very hard decision …. many tears and considerations… but I worked for this career and have two degrees and a master’s I will not let society kill me off or tell me I have to work simply because I chose to teach young children to become the best they can be in life.

      I didn’t choose to be placed in a classroom with no support or air circulation with 25 kids and told to figure it out. Think hard and long before you send your beautiful loved ones back to school Remember, it’s your choice and don’t let others pressure your decision.

  7. Paul Muench 5 months ago5 months ago

    Are state or county governments providing schools with guidelines as to when they must or should make a decision about remote learning for the fall?

  8. Bo Loney 5 months ago5 months ago

    Thank you. We don’t want to die.