Photo: Jessica Christian/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris

Superintendents’ anxiety is rising as they prepare to reopen school not just for students physically returning but also for an unknown number choosing to learn from home.

The Legislature said districts must provide those students with an education, too, and recrafted the provisions for independent study, an alternative for students who need to do their academics outside the classroom. Originally designed to accommodate schedules of child actors and aspiring Olympic athletes or for victims of bullying, it’s now an option for students of all grades fearful of contracting Covid.

But the new independent study law, in the trailer bill elaborating on this year’s state budget, is complex and was designed by legislative staff without a hearing. Most districts have had less than six weeks to prepare. And, with the rapid spread of the delta variant and cases of Covid school infections in the news, superintendents are worried they could be swamped with applications for independent study by parents who then become dissatisfied with what they signed up for.

“Two weeks ago, superintendents were saying the demand was low. Now they’re saying they suspect there could be a huge increase,” said Barrett Snider, who represents independent studies programs as a partner with Capitol Advisors, a Sacramento school consulting firm. “The ground is shifting under their feet again.”

Anticipating a need to hire additional teachers when they’re already having trouble replacing those who have retired is creating stress, Barrett said. “They’re pulling their hair out.”

Earlier last week, only 25 parents in the district had signed up for an expanded independent study program at the Kern High School District in Kern County, the largest high school district in the state. But once school principals explain the program, the district anticipates as many as 5,000 students — 1 in 8 — will enroll by the time schools reopen on Aug. 18, said Dean McGee, associate superintendent of educational services and innovative programs.

Other districts are projecting 5% to 8% of students choosing the option — and a lot fewer in those districts that are discouraging it or doing little to promote its availability.

Some parents may enroll and transfer back to in-person instruction after discovering independent study isn’t working for their kids or for them, since it will demand more home supervision. If the delta variant wanes or vaccines are approved for children under 12, families may desert independent study in droves, creating potential challenges integrating them back into school.

Few districts are in the position of Kern, which has developed a virtual curriculum of prerecorded lessons, Google Docs and YouTube videos. It has been planning for months to open Kern Learn Extension for independent study in every school. Even so, coordinating a program that can grow and shrink based on enrollment swings on short notice will not be easy, McGee said.

At a meeting this week, “All of the principals were looking at me like they could kill me,” McGee said. “Now the day is here, and it is more urgent than we thought.”

At the other end of the spectrum are small school districts, lacking the administrative staff and flexibility of big districts. They’re especially uneasy about the potential financial penalties — a loss of student funding — if they don’t comply with the law’s regulations and extensive documentation requirements.

The biggest challenge, said Helio Brasil, superintendent of 700-student Keyes Union School District in the Central Valley, is finding teachers to oversee students who decline to return, whether that’s due to health concerns or opposition to masking requirements.

“Our biggest issue is hiring. We are getting no applicants,” Brasil said. “This adds one more layer of staffing, and we were already struggling with that.”

Fully aware that many parents were displeased with the quality of distance and hybrid learning and angry that many districts delayed reopening schools last year, the Legislature let the law authorizing remote learning expire in June. Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislators made clear in the budget they passed in June — before the delta surge — that bringing back students to fully reopened schools is the priority.

But recognizing that health-compromised students and families also need an option, they gave them the choice of independent study. Created decades ago to serve students unable to handle a regular schedule, it allows students with extenuating circumstances to study on their own, supervised by a teacher. They can do so as long they regularly turn in assignments, and the school thoroughly documents their progress.

A list of requirements

In Assembly Bill 130, the budget trailer bill, the Legislature added safeguards to hold districts accountable for providing a rigorous program and staying in touch with students who stopped participating, as many did last year. Requirements include:

  • School boards must adopt an independent study policy before school reopening;
  • Parents must meet with school officials so they understand what they’re signing up for. Every parent, student, supervising teacher and other educators directly involved must then sign a contract;
  • High schools must provide all courses that a district offers for admission to the University of California and California State University, the A-G sequence;
  • Districts must provide personal contact with every student.
    • Transitional kindergarten to grade three: “an opportunity” for daily live instruction of unspecified length, whether with an entire class, small group or one-on-one conversation;
    • For middle school, an opportunity for daily “live interaction,” which could be wellness check-ins or progress reports, and weekly live instruction;
    • For high school, an opportunity for live instruction at least weekly;
  • Schools must have a “re-engagement” strategy for students who fail to attend three days in any week;
  • Students who aren’t progressing or choose to leave independent study have a right to return to in-person instruction within five days;
  • All students must be supervised by a credentialed teacher. The student/teacher ratio cannot exceed that of other district schools. For K-three, that’s 24:1.

The rewritten independent study provisions in Assembly Bill 130 reflect a compromise between administrators chafing at additional regulations and paperwork and student advocates who argue the requirements should be more rigorous.

“We’re disappointed at the infrequent live interaction for high school students, who research is showing have experienced trauma,” said Atasi Uppal, senior policy attorney at the National Center for Youth Law. “We need them to feel connected to school even if they have to choose the remote option for their own health and safety.”

Square peg in a round hole?

As the name implies, independent study best serves those who thrive working on their own, at their own pace. Imposing daily contact and hours of instruction on a system not designed for it is an imperfect fit.

Jason Peplinski, superintendent of Simi Valley Unified, where many independent study students work in the film and TV industry, said the new requirements may not work for traditional independent study families and will likely disappoint new families expecting extensive teacher-led instruction. He and other superintendents are concerned that unhappy parents will turn to private schools or online charter schools.

That’s what Thia Gielow is doing for her eighth grade son, who had been attending a Waldorf charter school that isn’t offering him remote learning; under AB 130, charter schools aren’t required to provide independent study. Independent study in her home district, Saddleback Valley Unified in Mission Viejo, in Orange County, offers little live instruction and contact with teachers, so her son will enroll in California Connections Academy, an online charter school that operates in 32 counties in California and is tied to Pearson, a multinational publishing and education company.

“This sounds like the way to go,” she said. “They do three (live) classes per week per subject, and students meet virtually with their peers.” If he likes it and does well, he may continue with the program in high school, she said.

To satisfy parents and deter defections to online charters, Arturo Valdez, deputy superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said he recommended to districts that they provide more virtual instruction than AB 130 requires. “If you do the minimum, you will have problems even if meeting the legal parameters,” he said.

What districts are doing

Several dozen school districts, such as Pajaro Valley Unified and Anaheim Union High School District, had created separate virtual academies as separate schools before the pandemic and are in a position to expand them. Kern High School District may be distinct in providing a uniform virtual program on a districtwide master schedule in all schools through Canvas, the district’s online learning system.

Pleasanton Unified had been planning Pleasanton Virtual Academy for more than a year and will open Aug. 11; as of last week, 241 students were enrolled, and the number could grow to 400 out of 14,000 students, said Superintendent David Haglund. Every grade covering all subjects, including high school, will be offered. Credentialed teachers, some on part-time assignments, will supervise students taking online courses through Edgenuity, a content provider. The district will encourage high school students to take A-G courses through Las Positas College, a community college.

Lodi Unified, with 28,000 students in San Joaquin County, is offering parents the choice of Lodi Unified Digital Academy and independent study at Independence School and the Valley Robotics Academy.

Delano Union School District, a 5,000-student district in Kern County, is creating a fully staffed virtual school that will “echo the traditional school day,” said Superintendent Rosalina Rivera. The district, in a farming community with a high percentage of low-income students, is using extra federal funding to offer tutorials and hire English language development and math coaches, a social worker and a counselor. Live instruction will be in 80-minute blocks, with time set aside to deal with trauma and social-emotional issues.

Covid infection rates are higher than the state average in Delano, and asthma rates are high, too. Parents want this virtual option, at least for now, Rivera said, and are making arrangements with grandparents and aunts. “We want to build a program our parents can be proud of,” she said. As of last week, parents of nearly 300 students had signed up, and Rivera expects initially to enroll about 500.

In Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest district, 10,280 students — about 2% of students — had signed up for independent study hours before deadline on Aug. 6. They will enroll in the City of Angels school,which provides online and independent study programs. Elementary school students will have 3 hours daily of live instruction with a teacher. Secondary school students will have three 70-minute periods per day with at least 40 minutes of direct student-teacher time per period. Whenever students are not receiving direct instruction, they will work independently. City of Angels does not offer dual language or magnet programs; any student currently enrolled in such programs who chooses to join the online program will retain their spot in their original school assuming an eventual return to in-person instruction.

Transfers to other districts

School districts can apply for a waiver from the mandate to offer independent study this year if it would create “an unreasonable fiscal burden.” That standard may be difficult for districts to meet, given the surfeit of one-time state funding and federal aid they’ve received. The alternative to a waiver is allowing students to transfer to other districts offering independent study programs. Delano Unified and Kern High School District have indicated their programs have space; Pleasanton already has 16 students from neighboring districts signed up. County education offices in Kern and Los Angeles are among those serving as brokers for districts with openings.

Districts often obstruct interdistrict transfers because state funding follows the student. But parents have a strong argument to press their case since districts will be held financially harmless for a loss of enrollment in 2021-22, as they have been for the past two years when they were affected by the pandemic. The state, which is expected to run a revenue surplus, would pick up the tab for a decline in enrollment at no loss to a district.

Districts complain the Legislature and state officials haven’t answered their concerns about unclear language and unrealistic timelines in the bill. What, for example, does providing “opportunities” for live instruction mean? Will districts be held responsible if students miss them? And how can they provide all A-G high school classes in independent study when school has already started? How will they know if they face penalties when the auditing guide they’ll be judged by won’t be published for months? Can districts create a cutoff date for signing up for independent study, when AB 130 says they are entitled to this option?

The California Department of Education is soon expected to offer an extensive FAQ to answer questions and clarify the requirements. Some superintendents are calling for big changes to Assembly Bill 130 when the Legislature considers cleanup language to the trailer bill later this month, but that’s not likely to happen, said Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee.

“While the state anticipates individual or small group quarantines being needed during the school year, these changes to independent study ensure that students still have access to quality education,” he said in a statement. “State public health leaders remain confident that widespread school closures will not be necessary in the coming school year, and we do not anticipate major changes (to the trailer bill) when session reconvenes.”

EdSource writers Sydney Johnson and Betty Márquez Rosales contributed to this article. 

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  1. Erica 2 months ago2 months ago

    As a concerned parent of children the ages: 3, 5, and 8 I do not think it is out of the norm for parents to want safety for our kids. Stricter regulations, better safety measures at school for our young ones should have been put in place for these young ones who do not have a vaccine available to them yet. More and more reports of the Delta variant affecting young children are increasing daily. … Read More

    As a concerned parent of children the ages: 3, 5, and 8 I do not think it is out of the norm for parents to want safety for our kids. Stricter regulations, better safety measures at school for our young ones should have been put in place for these young ones who do not have a vaccine available to them yet. More and more reports of the Delta variant affecting young children are increasing daily. Will it take a large school outbreak or worse a death or a poor child to put effect safety measures for our children in place this year. I just want my children, all children who can not be vaccinated to have their safety put first.

    Vaccinated people can still get covid and still pass it along, so how is asking all teachers to be vaccinated or take weekly tests helpful to my children who have no vaccine available to their age group? Schools aren’t doing social distancing in the classroom, or making masks mandatory on the playground. Wouldn’t it make sense to do this for our younger ones. How will you contact trace is it is a free for all without masks on the play ground? My poor 5 year old who suffers from anxiety and ADHD was unable to do pre-k last year, how do you expect a 5 year old to wear a mask from 8-2.

    I would rather educate my child through homeschool until these safety protocols are put in place and their health and safety is put first. College’s are mostly going to be zoom and online. Why is this not the same for our children who do not yet have a vaccine as a way to protect themselves?

  2. UC Scout 2 months ago2 months ago

    UC Scout, a University of California program provides flexible independent study options for schools, teachers, and students. Currently, UC Scout provides 65 A-G approved courses, of which 26 are AP College Board approved. Plus is offered free to CA public schools and at a nominal fee to CA private and out of state schools. Plus provides the complete online content to California teachers which they can use in person or with a 100% online … Read More

    UC Scout, a University of California program provides flexible independent study options for schools, teachers, and students. Currently, UC Scout provides 65 A-G approved courses, of which 26 are AP College Board approved.

    Plus is offered free to CA public schools and at a nominal fee to CA private and out of state schools. Plus provides the complete online content to California teachers which they can use in person or with a 100% online or hybrid model. With Plus, the school provides the teachers for oversight and directly issues credit.

    With On Demand, students can take online self paced independent study style courses overseen by a UC Scout teacher where upon completion they can receive an official transcript.

    Schools, teachers, and students interested in learning about UC Scout can visit ucscout.org.

  3. Kevin Francis Mcgonigal 2 months ago2 months ago

    It looks as though no pediatric vaccine will be available until close to the end of this calendar year and even then it will take some months to administer and allow time for the vaccine to take hold. With the younger children being permitted to remove masks when eating the whole prophylactic effect of mask wearing is defeated. School systems need to implement the home instruction alternative, distance learning, independent studies or whatever term they are … Read More

    It looks as though no pediatric vaccine will be available until close to the end of this calendar year and even then it will take some months to administer and allow time for the vaccine to take hold. With the younger children being permitted to remove masks when eating the whole prophylactic effect of mask wearing is defeated.

    School systems need to implement the home instruction alternative, distance learning, independent studies or whatever term they are using that allows for group instruction so that the younger students can have some kind of contact with peers while safely learning and they need to do it right now.

  4. Kimberly Kenne 2 months ago2 months ago

    Hi – the information about being held harmless for loss of ADA in 21-22 – where did that come from? Was there an additional year added to the previous hold harmless (just for ADA in 20-21)?

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 2 months ago2 months ago

      Yes, Kimberly. One more year. Districts will be responsible for taking daily attendance this year; they will have the option of using the greater number between attendance this year or attendance in 2020-21 (which in turn was based on pre-pandemic 2019-20).

    • Eric Premack 2 months ago2 months ago

      California's school funding laws have, for decades, funded school districts based on the greater of their current- versus prior-year average daily attendance (ADA). The one exception to the protection afforded in this long-standing law is that declines in ADA attributable to students who move from district-operated schools to charter schools is deducted from districts' prior-year ADA counts. The practical result is that the financial loss from declines in ADA attributable to demographic factors … Read More

      California’s school funding laws have, for decades, funded school districts based on the greater of their current- versus prior-year average daily attendance (ADA). The one exception to the protection afforded in this long-standing law is that declines in ADA attributable to students who move from district-operated schools to charter schools is deducted from districts’ prior-year ADA counts. The practical result is that the financial loss from declines in ADA attributable to demographic factors such as out-migration, declining birth rates, and daily participation etc., is delayed by a year giving a one-year “cushion,” but districts are not protected from declines in ADA due to students opting to leave the district for charter schools, so districts experience those charter-related losses in real time.

      These laws were tweaked for the 2020-21 school year, generally to fund school districts based on their 2019-20 ADA. This had the effect of protecting districts from declines in ADA attributable to both the usual demographic and daily attendance patterns (as has long been the case) and also for loss of ADA to charter schools in 2020-21. This additional charter-specific protection was the big change for 2020-21, along with protecting districts from low daily participation rates.

      For 2021-22, districts return to the long-standing declining enrollment protection law, but the 2020-21 baseline will continue to be set based on 2019-20 figures for most districts, thereby giving districts an effective two-year cushion against demographic and daily participation-related declines, and a partial cushion against charter-specific declines in ADA.

      Absent a change to law, starting in 2022-23, the state will return to the “usual” one-year cushion. As such, if districts’ 2021-22 ADA and 2022-23 ADA continues to decline, as it likely will for many, they will face what some are calling a “fiscal cliff” as the doubled-up protection fades away.

      This represents a significant amount of money for many districts that are experiencing large declines in enrollment and daily participation. The responsible ones are beefing-up their reserves and planning accordingly. It will be interesting to see if the less responsible ones lobby for further funding for “phantom” ADA.

      • John Fensterwald 2 months ago2 months ago

        Thanks for the thorough explanation, with a warning about the anticipated fiscal cliff, Eric.

      • SD Parent 2 months ago2 months ago

        Thank you for your thorough explanation. San Diego Unified has been losing enrollment for at least a decade due to an aging population. But the district lost thousands of students and ADA during the pandemic due to the poor quality of "distance learning" and the extreme reluctance to offer in-person learning, resulting in both disengagement of students and migration of students to private and charter schools. Rather than focus on providing a quality … Read More

        Thank you for your thorough explanation. San Diego Unified has been losing enrollment for at least a decade due to an aging population. But the district lost thousands of students and ADA during the pandemic due to the poor quality of “distance learning” and the extreme reluctance to offer in-person learning, resulting in both disengagement of students and migration of students to private and charter schools. Rather than focus on providing a quality instructional program to retain students, SDUSD leaders have instituted early retirement incentives and employee pay raises (another 4% in July 2021, after a 3.7% increase in Jan 2020) while heavily lobbying Sacramento to suspend the state’s funding LCFF based on recent ADA.

        According to SDUSD budget documents, enrollment has dropped 4% in the past two years and is slated to lose another 3% by 2023-24. The district has already identified a $95.6 million shortfall in 2022-23 (which does not include the costs of the recent 4% pay increase), and even if it solves that funding crisis, the district anticipates an additional shortfall of $107 million in 2023-24. So, yeah, there is definitely a fiscal cliff looming for SDUSD, largely of their own making by making long-term financial commitments during a short-term funding bubble.