Photo: Michael Burke/EdSource
Students inside teacher Carissa Brander’s 1st grade class during one of the school's first days of in-person learning.
Please note that the information in this article is current as of Oct. 30, 2020

California school districts are showing a clear momentum toward reopening for some version of in-person instruction.

That’s according to an EdSource survey of the 58 county offices of education. In the nation’s largest school system, the survey shows that children are learning through a patchwork of instructional strategies that continue to be shaped in profound ways by the coronavirus pandemic.

  • In 21 of the state’s 58 counties, all school districts are either currently offering some form of in-person instruction for students, or are planning to do so within days or weeks. In almost all cases, parents and students have the option of continuing to receive instruction remotely from their homes.
  • Nearly all of these counties are in largely rural areas in Central and Northern California, with Orange County and San Diego County the most significant exceptions. With nearly 500,000 students, Orange County is the site of the biggest launch of in-person instruction. All but two of the county’s 27 districts are either currently offering some form of in-person instruction to some or all of their students, or plan to do so soon.
  • In 17 counties, all or most districts are sticking to teaching students principally via distance learning. Of these districts, many are shooting to bring students back to school in January, or at least leaving open that possibility.
  • In the remaining 20 counties, there is a mixture of instructional approaches depending on the district, with some teaching students remotely, and others providing face-to-face instruction.

In addition, as a result of guidance issued by the state in August, many schools throughout the state have been offering in-person classes or other support services on school campuses for small groups of special education students and others with special needs like foster or homeless students.

Although it is ultimately up to districts to decide on their own what to do, the state appears to be nudging schools to offer in-person instruction, not just for students with special needs but for students attending regular classes as well.

“Schools should absolutely reopen,” said Dr. Erica Pan, the acting state health officer at a hearing in Sacramento on Tuesday of the education subcommittee of the Assembly Budget Committee. She suggested that they do so gradually, starting with the youngest children who are the least likely to carry the virus, or to become seriously ill from it. What must be balanced, she said, is the risk of transmission of the Covid-19 disease with learning loss that may result from students learning at home.

Pan said that only two school-related outbreaks of the disease have been reported to state health authorities, with a total of 17 positive cases. “That has been very encouraging given the number of schools that have already started to reopen,” she said, without giving any details of the schools or cases.

On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom weighed in on the issue as well. “We absolutely believe that the social-emotional learning that occurs in the classroom is the best place for our kids, certainly the best place for their parents as well,” he said, as reported by Politico.  “And so it is absolutely incumbent to do everything in our power to provide support to our districts so that they can safely reopen, emphasis on safely reopen.”

Although there is no exact tally, the survey suggests that by far the majority of students are still getting instruction via distance learning.  Over 3.6 million children are in schools in counties that are still principally in distance learning mode. Another 1.7 million are in “mixed” counties where school districts are offering instruction principally in-person or via distance learning.  The counties where all or most districts are offering in-person instruction, or plan to do so soon, have enrollments of 737,000.  Not all of those children are taking in-person classes, either because their districts are only offering in-person classes only to some grade levels, or parents have opted for their children to continue to study from home.

But accelerating the pace of returning to school is raising deep concerns among some lawmakers who worry that districts do not have the ability or resources to test students and staff for the virus, to do contact tracing or to adequately follow all the other complex health guidelines.

As larger districts start to open, said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, chair of the subcommittee at Tuesday’s hearing, “it could go wrong really fast. We need to make sure we don’t have an ‘oops’ six months down the road. We have to make sure we are ready.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond confirmed the school re-opening trend. “The trend we are seeing is that more schools in California are moving toward opening,” said Thurmond on the Schools on the Frontlines podcast, hosted by Carl Cohn.

Many of the state’s largest districts, which are mostly in urban areas, are sticking with distance learning for now. Of the state’s 30 largest districts, Capistrano Unified in Orange County has been open for in-person instruction for weeks, while neighboring Garden Grove Unified began opening some schools this week, and Santa Ana will do so for elementary grades over the next several weeks.

Many districts are only offering in-person instruction to elementary students, and phasing in instruction to middle or high school students. In some cases, high school students continue to receive most or all of their classes via distance learning.

The return to school for in-person instruction has been made possible because of improved conditions related to the pandemic in California, although positive cases have been ticking up in recent days. Under a color-coded monitoring system announced by Gov. Newsom in August, districts are allowed to offer in-person instruction for regular classes only once conditions in their counties have improved, and the county is no longer on the “purple” Tier One list.

When schools opened in August, 48 out of 58 counties were on that list. That meant that 5.3 million, or 87%, of California’s students, attended schools prohibited from opening for in person instruction.

Things have changed dramatically since then.

Schools in only nine counties are still on the list with the dreaded color purple. Under state guidelines, that means that districts serving 42%, or 2.5 million, of the state’s public school students are still required to offer instruction via distance learning.

Thus, California has gone from barring almost all its students from attending school in person at the beginning of the school year to allowing the majority of them to benefit from face-to-face instruction just two months later.

As a result, many school administrators are coming under more pressure to offer face-to-face instruction from parents seeking relief from the distance learning regimen that began last March.

According to the EdSource survey, most districts offering in-person instruction are doing so in a hybrid or blended format. That means students come to school for direct instruction for some part of the school week, and study via distance learning the rest of the week.

Only a handful are bringing students back to school for five days a week.

One of them is the Black Oak Mine District in El Dorado County, with 1300 students, situated in the Sierra foothills northeast of Sacramento. For the past month, students have come to school each day on a modified schedule, attending classes until noon, and then doing homework in the afternoon.

Superintendent Jeremy Meyers said his district has been able to bring students back because of the low number of positive Covid-19 cases in the county, as well as strict rules requiring masks and other health and safety precautions. He said that the “transition to face-to-face instruction was an incredible amount of work,” but once it was set up, it “has been going as well as we could have hoped.”

State guidelines allow schools to exempt the youngest children from wearing masks. But at Black Oak Mine all children wear masks, beginning with 4-year-olds in transitional kindergarten. Remarkably, he said, children have gotten used to the masks, and enforcement has not been a problem. “The messaging to students and parents included the imperative of wearing masks in exchange for our reopening — and our ability to remain open,” he said.

And what form of instruction does he prefer? “Face-to-face is what we are good at,” he said.

On a far larger scale, Capistrano Unified in Orange County is offering classes five days a week for as many as 13,000 of its 17,000 elementary school students. Students attend classes during the morning, and then in the afternoon get tutoring under large tents erected in the school yards or playing fields.

San Diego County is another county where large numbers of students have returned to campus. As of this week, 33 of the county’s 42 districts are offering some form of in-person instruction to up to 86,000 students in regular schools, and about 10,000 more in charter schools.

But notably, the county’s largest district, San Diego Unified, with 122,000 students, is sticking mainly to distance learning. It announced this week that it would not bring elementary students back until Jan. 4 and middle or high schools students until Jan. 25 — at earliest.

There are multiple reasons most of the largest districts are holding back. They may not have the financial or other resources to meet health and safety requirements, or the classroom space to allow for social distancing. They also are more likely to have stronger teachers’ unions that have been especially vocal in raising concerns about school safety during the pandemic. Districts themselves may have imposed stricter requirements than the state for reopening.

In all cases, school administrators, with the backing of their teachers, have simply decided that it is not safe to have children and staff return in significant numbers, and are not willing to take the risk of doing so.

But state health officer Pan says that opening schools safely is possible. “There are examples of successful school openings around the country and the world when you follow the key principles of distancing, face coverings, maintaining (small student) cohorts and good ventilation.”

The challenge is that those seemingly simple directives can be too difficult to implement, depending on the district. There are also growing concerns that school re-openings are happening too often in more affluent schools or private ones.

State Superintendent Thurmond worries that “social isolation has created very difficult conditions for our students,” and that will contribute to the push to bring students back to school. At the same time, he said, “we have to put safety first and foremost.”

 

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  1. Brenda Lebsack 1 month ago1 month ago

    Recently, top infectious disease Epidemiologists from Oxford, Stanford and Harvard released The Great Barrington Declaration. www.gbdeclaration.org It states that the widespread lockdown policy has been a devastating public health mistake. They say schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching, and sports should resume. To date, this declaration has been signed by approximately 12k medical practitioners and 33k scientists. The Declaration was written by Dr. Bhattacharya of Stanford, … Read More

    Recently, top infectious disease Epidemiologists from Oxford, Stanford and Harvard released The Great Barrington Declaration. http://www.gbdeclaration.org
    It states that the widespread lockdown policy has been a devastating public health mistake. They say schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching, and sports should resume. To date, this declaration has been signed by approximately 12k medical practitioners and 33k scientists. The Declaration was written by Dr. Bhattacharya of Stanford, Dr. Gupta of Oxford and Dr. Kulldorff of Harvard.

  2. Giselle S Galper 1 month ago1 month ago

    I thought I'd point you to the State's explanations of the law that says that full asynchronous days are NOT allowed. SB98 was passed this summer. I understand you are not lawyers, so I am including links to a memo and an FAQ from the State. https://www.cde.ca.gov/be/pn/im/infomemojul2020.asp https://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/cr/dl/distlearningfaqs.asp See in particular #11 in the FAQs Education Code Section 43503 requires that distance learning include “daily live interaction.” Daily live interaction is two-way communication between a certificated employee and student … Read More

    I thought I’d point you to the State’s explanations of the law that says that full asynchronous days are NOT allowed.

    SB98 was passed this summer. I understand you are not lawyers, so I am including links to a memo and an FAQ from the State.

    https://www.cde.ca.gov/be/pn/im/infomemojul2020.asp

    https://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/cr/dl/distlearningfaqs.asp
    See in particular #11 in the FAQs

    Education Code Section 43503 requires that distance learning include “daily live interaction.” Daily live interaction is two-way communication between a certificated employee and student each instructional day, at the actual time of occurrence. Daily live interaction is required for every student with both a certificated employee and their student peers. In particular English learners, and students with special needs benefit from daily oral language development opportunities.
    Examples of daily live interaction include in-person and virtual communication or interactions, including but not limited to synchronous online instruction (per statute) and phone calls where both parties communicate at the time of occurrence. One-way communication, including voicemails, emails, or print materials, is not considered a live interaction.
    Pursuant to Education Code Section 43503(b)(6), if daily live interaction is not feasible as part of regular instruction, the governing board or body of the LEA shall develop, with parent and stakeholder input, an alternative plan for frequent live interaction that provides a comparable level of service and school connectedness.

  3. Giselle S Galper 1 month ago1 month ago

    Love that you covered this topic, but SB98 explicitly requires daily live interaction when there is not live instruction. Why does EdSource keep saying this is a choice? The districts are breaking the law and the state is not enforcing it.

  4. Anonymous 1 month ago1 month ago

    There is no incentive for public schools in California to open because the schools are guaranteed funding for all of 2020-21 based on last year's ADA. So teachers, employees, facilities, etc., are all going to be paid for regardless of whether students are there or not. The people being hurt the most by the inability/lack of desire for schools to open are working class parents (especially moms) and their children. Private schools have the financial … Read More

    There is no incentive for public schools in California to open because the schools are guaranteed funding for all of 2020-21 based on last year’s ADA. So teachers, employees, facilities, etc., are all going to be paid for regardless of whether students are there or not. The people being hurt the most by the inability/lack of desire for schools to open are working class parents (especially moms) and their children.

    Private schools have the financial incentive to serve students and have been serving students in-person and without dramatic infection results. I have two secondary public school students trying to learn full-time in distance learning – rather than academic growth we have watched them experience depression, isolation, challenges due to not meeting classmates or making new friends, physical health problems due to sedentary synchronous classes, etc. Newsom and/or policy makers need to either fight back against the teacher’s union refusal to open or reverse this public school funding structure if there is any hope of fully opening public schools this year.

  5. Allan Miller 1 month ago1 month ago

    EdSource should consider really drilling down and shedding light on the detrimental impact that the governor's restrictions are having on students and their families. There's a huge disconnect between his directives, which are being made from a position of "affluence" as well as influence, and the devastating effects they are having on children and parents (constituents). Being that it is nearly impossible to submit input to much less get a response from the governor's office, … Read More

    EdSource should consider really drilling down and shedding light on the detrimental impact that the governor’s restrictions are having on students and their families. There’s a huge disconnect between his directives, which are being made from a position of “affluence” as well as influence, and the devastating effects they are having on children and parents (constituents). Being that it is nearly impossible to submit input to much less get a response from the governor’s office, I have begun to approach Superintendent Thurmond, to whom I sent the following letter. I encourage others to exercise their voices as well.

    Superintendent Thurmond,

    Assuming good intentions, I would like to thank you for your efforts during your tenure as State Superintendent of Public Instruction. The goal of this correspondence is to request that you champion and advocate for the millions of students that are being “held hostage” in the confines of distance learning as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

    As both a father and school district administrator, I am appalled as to how currently imposed restrictions negatively impact students in our district and those across the state. As I’m sure that you’re aware, 39 states have issued no order to keep schools closed, while four have them open. The former states have rightfully left the decision up to local control (i.e., elected board of trustees). Although the governor can argue that California is doing this, the truth is that the county health metrics have made it nearly impossible to do so. The latter does not consider local variance, which is a viable leverage point for districts to make sound decisions that are best for their respective communities.

    I truly appreciate your charge to close the digital divide. However, no amount of Chromebooks and hotspots will take the place of a conducive learning environment within a school building. Totally aware and respectful of the danger of the virus itself, I will go on record as saying that the extreme harm, both academically and mentally, that distance learning is having on our children is more detrimental overall. We are far more capable of protecting students from COVID-19 than mitigating the long-term effects of learning loss and mental illness over time in a distance learning environment. We are going to be recovering from this damage for years to come. You, as an educator, know this.

    I implore you to set aside your aspirations for reelection and do what is right by clearly stating to Governor Newsom and, most importantly, your constituents that children need to be physically back in school and that we need to accommodate this by adjusting the county health metrics that are hindering local control.

    Sincerely,

    Allan Miller