Credit: Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education
A high school student completes his schoolwork online from his home.

Weeks after most districts began the school year, some students who enrolled in independent study — the only option for those opting out of in-person learning — have yet to begin instruction, be assigned a teacher or be enrolled in all required courses.

Those students’ parents say they are confused about how independent study works and that communication from school officials has been sporadic. Many of those parents have children at high risk of infection or family members at home at high risk, among other concerns driving their decision to keep their children off campus.

Most California K-12 students have returned for in-person learning, but those who can’t or don’t want to return must enroll in independent study. While independent study has long been an option for a few students, this school year’s surge in demand is overwhelming districts and frustrating students’ families.

The situation has been so chaotic, state legislators are proposing changes that will make it easier for districts to manage independent study. In the meantime, parents are struggling to manage their children’s education.

Tammy Tyler has two sons: Eric is in high school, and Daelin is in elementary school. She’s at high risk for contracting the coronavirus, so she decided to enroll both boys in the independent study program in their district, Mojave Unified in Kern County.

But the first day of school came and went without any communication from her older son’s teacher and without the Chromebook that she was told he’d be receiving. She reached out to the school and didn’t hear back. Two weeks passed by the time she heard from his teacher.

So she looked into enrolling Eric in a community school, a type of public school that partners with community organizations to provide social-emotional support for students. She figured smaller size classes might allow for social distancing that would help keep her and her sons safe. But both she and Eric said it felt like a prison. There were security guards, no cellphones allowed, and students weren’t allowed to take anything to school with them — not even backpacks, Tyler said.

Ultimately, Tyler decided to enroll her older son in an online charter school, but she’s now waiting for him to be fully enrolled in his classes. At this point, Eric has missed about a month of school. Before the pandemic, he was an A student. Slowly, those grades have dropped, and Tyler worries this will set him back further.

“It makes me feel like this district, they really do not care. So distance learning was the same way as independent study…,” Tyler said. “The kids were kind of stuck; they really didn’t have work.”

Mojave Unified did not respond to requests for comment.

After the state statute that allowed schools to implement distance learning during the pandemic expired in June, legislators adjusted the rules for independent study and made it the only online option the state will fund this school year. However, school officials are complaining that the new rules are cumbersome and unclear and say they’re worried the system will break down if Covid outbreaks force large numbers of individual students, classrooms and entire schools into independent study programs on short notice.

In response to districts’ requests for clarification, legislative leaders have proposed a revision of independent study requirements, which must be voted on by Friday before they recess for the year. The proposed amendments clarify that districts can provide remote learning to quarantined students, receive funding beginning from the first day that a student enters quarantine, and have up to 30 days to ensure parents sign a contract agreeing to independent study.

Many parents understand that administering independent study must be stressful for administrators and teachers. But most also agreed that, for the sake of students, the issues with the virtual programs must be addressed and corrected sooner rather than later.

In San Diego County, Cynthia Wrona has three boys ages 5, 8 and 12. All three are on the autism spectrum, and she doesn’t feel safe sending them to school. Her youngest son is in kindergarten and her oldest attends an independent school for autistic children that her school district, Del Mar Unified, is paying for. Her middle son is in third grade and receives occupational therapy, speech therapy and counseling for behavior — all services that he received while distance learning last school year.

Wrona wants to enroll all three in independent study, but the team putting together her third grader’s individualized education plan, or IEP, has determined he would not qualify to continue receiving those services remotely now that schools have reopened. An IEP is a plan developed for a special education student that outlines what that student needs to learn in a specified period of time and what special services need to be provided based on the student’s ability. Wrona won’t send her sons to campus, however, until they have access to a vaccine that will protect them against the coronavirus, and her youngest sons are not yet eligible.

Rather than risk losing access to the special education services, the youngest boys are now enrolled in Coastal Academy, an online charter school in Oceanside, with an option in which she home-schools her sons while working with a school liaison.

“I feel like we are free-falling, unsupported as a mom with children with special needs. I need the village; I had an entourage, and I could parcel out services,” she said. “Now I am doing all of those things by myself.”

Del Mar Unified did not respond to a request for comment.

Wrona’s experience is similar to that of Joseph Camacho, who lives in El Sobrante in the San Francisco Bay Area. His son, Joey, is a special education student and an 11-year-old cancer survivor who isn’t old enough for a Covid-19 vaccine. Camacho isn’t comfortable sending him back to Fairmont Elementary School in West Contra Costa Unified.

But if they enroll in the district’s independent study program, dubbed the “Virtual Learning Academy,” Joey will miss out on the additional services called for in his IEP. The services Joey received at school were an in-class aide, additional instruction from a special education teacher, as well as speech and occupational therapy, all of which he received during distance learning. Camacho said he was told that Joey would not be provided an in-class aide under independent study, and that the district has not said how the other services called for in his IEP would be provided.

“It’s either send him to school and roll the dice, or get him into independent study, which is not an environment which they say people with IEPs should use,” Camacho said. “If I do go that route, I’m going to essentially give up the services that he needs, and if I want all of that I have to send him to school.”

Camacho considered keeping his son at home doing independent study until he can receive a vaccine — Pfizer board member Dr. Scott Gottlieb announced Aug. 30 that the company expects to have a vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 cleared for emergency use by U.S. drug regulators in late fall or early winter. But if Camacho commits to independent study, the family is not guaranteed a spot at their school when they are ready to send Joey to campus.

Fairmont Elementary is in a different city than where the Camachos live, but they were able to secure a spot there because of Joey’s special needs. Camacho fears putting Joey in independent study would make it harder to secure a spot back at the school if they return.

“What they’re offering is a problem because it’s not equitable. They’re offering something to a certain number of students who can succeed in independent study, and everyone else good luck,” Camacho said.

Camacho is hoping to work something out with the district so that it provides his son a virtual option that fits his needs.

West Contra Costa Unified officials were not available for comment.

At Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school district, over 12,000 students expressed interest in independent study a few days before the semester began on Aug. 16. The district runs the independent study program through one of its schools, called City of Angels. Prior to the pandemic, the school’s enrollment was less than 1,500 students.

Since school started, the number of students requesting independent study has dropped by several hundred, but the influx of students nonetheless has made it difficult to ensure each student is assigned the correct teacher.

Emily, who requested her last name be omitted because she is a foster parent, has a daughter in 12th grade. Everyone in their home who is eligible for a vaccine has received it, but with an ineligible 8-year-old and an 81-year-old cancer survivor living in the same home, her daughter has opted to continue learning from home this school year.

As a high school senior, her daughter should be enrolled in a total of six classes. But two weeks into the school year, she was enrolled in three classes — and one of them was incorrectly assigned. Rather than being assigned to a pre-calculus class, she was placed in a statistics course with a teacher who had never taught above sixth-grade math.

“We have a lot of empathy for City of Angels; I think they were not prepared for the influx of students that they got,” Emily said. “We’re not really stressing it, but if by week two or three she still is only in three classes with a sixth-grade teacher, it’s going to be really concerning because she’s college-bound. Senior year is not the year that you want her to suddenly not be completing her A-G requirements.”

Her daughter is now in her fourth week of class, and while her math class has been corrected and two more classes added, she is waiting for a visual and performing arts class.

David Baca, the district’s chief of schools, said that students who need multiple classes have been enrolled in a “chunked” fashion: three classes for the first half of the semester and then three classes for the second half of the semester. And for any students, like Emily’s daughter, experiencing delays, Baca said that staffing up to meet the demand has been a “heavy lift.”

“But we feel like we’re making real progress, and we keep getting better, and we’re going to keep working until we get it right,” he added.

As for Emily, she’s grateful her family has access to resources that help them navigate the college application process but knows that’s not the case for all families.

“I think about all the families who don’t have those resources, particularly multigenerational families, families with essential workers, families with children with disabilities,” Emily said. “It’s so much stress just to ensure that your child is getting the basic education that they’re entitled to. I really hope the state Legislature will start to rethink expanding the options for those who don’t feel safe being back.”

EdSource reporters John Fensterwald and Ali Tadayon contributed to this story.

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 (10)

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. Jaclyn B 2 days ago2 days ago

    My son is 5 and extremely bright, he has an IEP with his home school. They said he is totally capable of doing the assignments but struggles behaviorally with listening/staying on task etc. He is autistic and also cannot write/hold a pencil or marker well (we have worked on it with him for years and he still struggles). I have tried reaching out to City Of Angels for two months and finally got a response yesterday. … Read More

    My son is 5 and extremely bright, he has an IEP with his home school. They said he is totally capable of doing the assignments but struggles behaviorally with listening/staying on task etc. He is autistic and also cannot write/hold a pencil or marker well (we have worked on it with him for years and he still struggles).

    I have tried reaching out to City Of Angels for two months and finally got a response yesterday. Someone called and said he was enrolled and to log on Schoology with the information. That’s all I was given. I go on Schoology and none of the apps work, I can’t log into any of the education apps to do any of his assignments (they say I need admin to approve me?). The teacher is also very harsh and cruel and mocked my son for not standing up straight and being able to sit at a desk and listen. He is special needs, I kept telling her, and that Zoom classes are incredibly difficult for us but that I try my best to sit with him and have him listen/chase after him if he runs and hides from the screen. He just turned 5 for goodness sakes. It’s not boot camp. It’s choppy ABC videos he can barely hear and a rude teacher who tells the students they aren’t allowed to speak and communicate.

    I’m stuck and not sure what to do. I asked if I could skip the zoom and just do the assignments with him. I don’t know who to contact or how to get this sorted out, but this teacher is so mean to the children and my son is going to lose any passion he has from school due to this awful teacher. She called me apparently from a home phone (I thought it was City of Angels phone) and I called back to tell her I could not access any of the apps and didn’t know where to submit the assignments and she simply told me to not call her on her private phone, and that she’d try and figure out access for me. I feel saddened and concerned. My son was in PALS the last two years and they were wonderful and patient with him. City of Angles feels like bootcamp and uncaring with children who need accommodations and patience/children with IEPs. It seemed like she didn’t even know he had an IEP or was special needs to begin with at all.

  2. Margaret 4 days ago4 days ago

    I'm basically in the the same situation in Contra Costa County. My son just became eligible for a vaccine but even after he is fully vaccinated, I do not feel comfortable sending him to school. He has an IEP and they wanted me to put him in RSP to do independent study then we had a meeting and they told me they wouldn't recommend that so they would put him on a waitlist, then I … Read More

    I’m basically in the the same situation in Contra Costa County. My son just became eligible for a vaccine but even after he is fully vaccinated, I do not feel comfortable sending him to school. He has an IEP and they wanted me to put him in RSP to do independent study then we had a meeting and they told me they wouldn’t recommend that so they would put him on a waitlist, then I got an email saying they have no placement for him at all and now I’m getting truancy letters.

    After being told I wouldn’t, the teacher said he would work with my son and post assignments online and stay in contact. (This was all discussed in the meeting with the principal and the other staff who manage his IEP) they understood I have an 82 yr old grandmother who is a breast cancer survivor, who is diabetic and on oxygen who I care for. She is at risk of passing if she contracts Covid even if she is vaccinated.

    I’ve also been to the school to pick up his assignments and saw kids touching each other not wearing masks or social distancing so I have little faith the staff will control Covid transmission. On the first day of school this was happening in front of staff and parents and no one said anything. The school is making it hard and they should’ve been prepared for this to happen. We weren’t ready to resume in person learning.

  3. Jade J 5 days ago5 days ago

    The independent study charter school Ocean Grove Charter just sent out a letter saying they are abandoning the independent study students that have been on the waiting list for a month (some longer) because they can’t find teachers for them. They have given the parents 2 days to find an alternative or send their student back to in-person learning. Otherwise, parents face their children’s absences being marked unexcused. Parents are left holding the bag here. … Read More

    The independent study charter school Ocean Grove Charter just sent out a letter saying they are abandoning the independent study students that have been on the waiting list for a month (some longer) because they can’t find teachers for them. They have given the parents 2 days to find an alternative or send their student back to in-person learning. Otherwise, parents face their children’s absences being marked unexcused. Parents are left holding the bag here. This is a really easy way to make the community lose faith in the public school system and our state government. This is a complete failure.

  4. Burs 6 days ago6 days ago

    It’s unfortunate but its also stressful for some of us parents that sent our kids back to school & are scared of our children catching the virus. Education is important but so is my child’s life. My child’s life comes first. Sad that many are not taking this pandemic seriously. Especially for kids under 12!

  5. Lisa K 1 week ago1 week ago

    We are in Orange County, have a 14 year old in 8th grade he's also autistic. We wanted to enroll him in a Homeschool and were told they do not have anyone qualified to teach him and we'd have to relinquish his IEP rights. We have not sent him to school. The teacher has been sending work for him to do at home. We've been trying to find a charter school to enroll him in … Read More

    We are in Orange County, have a 14 year old in 8th grade he’s also autistic. We wanted to enroll him in a Homeschool and were told they do not have anyone qualified to teach him and we’d have to relinquish his IEP rights. We have not sent him to school. The teacher has been sending work for him to do at home. We’ve been trying to find a charter school to enroll him in and it’s been next to impossible because of the IEP and his autism. We feel extremely discriminated against. This is not right!!

  6. Javier H 1 week ago1 week ago

    Teachers giving extra credit for having kids participate in Antifa/BLM riots……….

    Yup, that’s your problem. Home schooling is the answer when greedy irresponsible child abusing adults are leading your children to the slaughter house lol

  7. Lori 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Independent study is not their only option. They can privately homeschool their own children. All that's required is an affidavit to be filed annually with the department of education. You can get form from their website and fill it out online. There are numerous websites that aid homeschooling parents with curriculum, etc. As well, the state's curriculum is laid out in the education code. It's not hard to read. Finally, there is very little expense … Read More

    Independent study is not their only option. They can privately homeschool their own children. All that’s required is an affidavit to be filed annually with the department of education. You can get form from their website and fill it out online. There are numerous websites that aid homeschooling parents with curriculum, etc. As well, the state’s curriculum is laid out in the education code. It’s not hard to read. Finally, there is very little expense with this option and it provides tremendous flexibility and your children’s learning can be customized.

  8. simon wilson 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    School is best place for children to learn this year. There are very very few children that a medical professional would recommend stay home.
    It’s irresponsible of a parent to keep kid out of school and impose independent study without 3rd party medical referral.

    We are letting kids down by allowing current IS loss to stay away from school.

  9. Bree 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    I understand parents frustration. I have a son 10 year old son with IEP special with asthma and I almost lost him once got RSP I am afraid to send him to school because he doesn’t have a vaccine. Already had a close call, had to quarantine the first week of school. He missed out on so much learning and is scared to go back and get sick have to go through the quarantine … Read More

    I understand parents frustration. I have a son 10 year old son with IEP special with asthma and I almost lost him once got RSP I am afraid to send him to school because he doesn’t have a vaccine.

    Already had a close call, had to quarantine the first week of school. He missed out on so much learning and is scared to go back and get sick have to go through the quarantine and getting tests again. Everyday he cries on way to school, makes his stomach sick and wants to vomit. he is already got exposed and lost learning having hard time catching up. I want him to be able to have remote education and still continue to receive his services remotely. I should not have to chose between his health or education. Some of them also pose a higher risk getting ill with underlying health conditions. They want to call child protective services but who should I call or sue when my son gets ill because that’s called child endangerment, making me send my son to school and putting his life at risk?

  10. Erin Kraemer 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Big school districts are overburdened with legislation to adequately deliver quality educational services to families choosing to school at home. First they are required by law to choose curriculum, routine, and rules just like a real in person classroom. But it doesn't work at home. Legislators aren't educators and don't know that. Homeschool, real homeschool, is the only option for families with special circumstances that require maximum flexibility and creativity in implementing learning outside of … Read More

    Big school districts are overburdened with legislation to adequately deliver quality educational services to families choosing to school at home. First they are required by law to choose curriculum, routine, and rules just like a real in person classroom. But it doesn’t work at home. Legislators aren’t educators and don’t know that. Homeschool, real homeschool, is the only option for families with special circumstances that require maximum flexibility and creativity in implementing learning outside of a classroom. Parents can find support through California charter schools, not independent study programs from the Department of Education private school affidavit, as well as local homeschool groups which can be found online.