Quarantines and teacher shortages are threatening to overwhelm school districts already struggling to provide independent study for tens of thousands of students who have chosen it or could be forced into it because of Covid infections and exposure.
Many districts are confused over how to educate students in quarantine — what’s required, what’s allowed and what’s funded.
At this point, independent study, even for eight to 14 days due to a quarantine, is the only education option that the state is willing to fund other than in-person instruction. The Legislature let the one-year law setting the rules for distance learning expire at the end of June.
For decades, many school districts have offered independent study for students whose needs couldn’t be met by traditional schools: child actors, aspiring Olympians, bullied children or brilliant students who thrive on their own.
In retooling the law to accommodate families still fearful of returning to the classroom during Covid, the Legislature requires all families to sign contracts spelling out the terms of independent study. Lawmakers strengthened reporting requirements to verify that students were doing assignments and set minimal live instruction requirements for students in early grades.
But superintendents complain that the new rules are cumbersome and unclear and say they’re worried the system will break down if outbreaks of Covid force large numbers of individual students, classrooms and entire schools into independent study programs on short notice.
“This has become hyperpoliticized, but a lack of direction and clarity from the state really has been having an impact on us,” said Brett McFadden, superintendent of the Nevada Union High School District in Grass Valley.
Call for changes to the law
Some superintendents and lobbyists for districts are calling for the Legislature to change the independent study language in Assembly Bill 130, the “trailer bill” that details the state budget. The bill, passed in July, lays out the enrollment procedures, accountability obligations and minimum instruction requirements for independent study (see sections 53 to 55 and 66 to 74). They want the Legislature to ease the paperwork burden and regulations so that students can learn from home, using Zoom, during a quarantine.
An extensive 79-question FAQ document that the California Department of Education published on Aug. 23 didn’t include guidance on quarantines. And so far, legislative leaders have given no sign they’re willing to significantly change AB 130’s sections on independent study before they adjourn Sept. 10.
“The delta variant is exposing the limitations of independent study as a virtual model, and with no distance learning option, this is problematic,” Kindra Britt, director of communications and strategy for the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, said in a statement. “Community-transmission Covid outbreaks occurring in the first few days of instruction, as well as staffing shortages that already existed, make it nearly impossible for schools to meet the need and demand for independent study” while complying with the law, she said.
Were it not for the delta variant and the specter of widespread quarantines, most districts might be better positioned to handle independent study. Although some districts did not widely publicize the option and others discouraged parents from signing up, most students want to be back in school anyway. Actual state attendance data won’t be out until the end of the month, but county officials report that on average 2% to 5% of students are enrolling in independent study. Exceptions include 6.4% either enrolled or on a waitlist in San Bernardino City Unified and up to 10% in a few other districts.
Los Angeles County Office of Education Deputy Superintendent Arturo Valdez said the county had anticipated expanding its high school independent study program to serve students in all grades from other districts as inter-district transfers, but so far there have been no requests. “It’s been a big surprise,” he said.
That’s not to say everything has gone smoothly. Most districts had less than six weeks to plan for independent study, reach out to parents and set it in place. The best positioned were those that had already planned to open virtual academies, like Irvine Unified and Pleasanton Unified, and those that negotiated with teachers either to fill independent study positions or spend part of their day working with independent study students. In other districts, there have been long waitlists, slow responses and complaints, particularly by parents of students with disabilities who have been denied remote services.
Carmel Levitan’s two children normally attend Eagle Rock Elementary school in Los Angeles Unified, where school started Aug. 16, but concerns over Covid-19 transmission rates led her to enroll both in City of Angels, the district’s independent study program. Her first grader’s teacher normally teaches middle school, but he’s “doing a great job,” Levitan said.
Her fifth grader, however, was initially assigned a teacher who informed Levitan that he’s not actually teaching through the district’s independent study program. Nearly two weeks of instruction passed before Levitan’s child was assigned a new classroom, which students will begin attending Aug. 27.
“I’m willing to roll with that. It’s just they need to figure out the demand,” Levitan said. “Several of my fifth grader’s friends are currently in quarantine due to a close contact at school, so compared to that stress, I’ll still take the uncertainty of City of Angels.”
Early signs of trouble
A further surge in infections will accelerate problems. On Tuesday, Los Angeles Unified reported that through the preceding week, 6,500 students and 1,000 employees were told to quarantine because they had tested positive for Covid or been in close contact with someone who had. That number of students seeking short-term independent study would swamp the City of Angels, which is barely keeping up with the current 10,000 enrollees. So instead of directing students to independent study, as other districts are, LA Unified is leaving it up to students’ own teachers to provide support during quarantine.
McFadden, the superintendent in Grass Valley and Superintendent Jason Peplinski of Simi Valley Unified, at opposite ends of the state, are experiencing expanding Covid outbreaks and offer their experiences as a caution to others and the Legislature.
Simi Valley Unified, one of the first districts to reopen in Ventura County, had 300 of its 16,000 students in quarantine as of Thursday, Peplinski said. Under AB 130, all of those students should enroll in the district’s independent study program, where they would study independently under the supervision of teachers credentialed to teach their grades. There would be some form of daily live instruction in grades TK to 3 — each district determines how much — with daily or weekly contact, depending on the grade, for older students.
But Peplinski said he can’t quickly find substitutes and credentialed teachers to serve these students (along with bus drivers and cafeteria workers, also in high demand). He hired four teachers on temporary contracts for the independent study program, which is serving 450 students, 50% more than last year.
Instead, Simi Valley teachers have agreed to use Zoom so that quarantined students can participate in class from home. The teachers are also providing other help so that students don’t fall behind, he said. This is a better alternative than assigning students to a separate independent study program, where someone other than their classroom teacher assigns unrelated work, Peplinski said.
But Peplinski said he doesn’t know if the district will be funded since it’s unclear whether concurrent instruction to quarantined students and students at school, plus other efforts teachers are doing on their own, without compensation, comply with the law. Teachers are separately documenting the attendance of quarantined students. Peplinski hopes the state will accept that.
McFadden is in the same position at Nevada Union High School District in Grass Valley, on the western slope of the Sierra. Infection rates have risen fast in the 1,600-student district. By the end of last week, 65 students were in quarantine, but McFadden foresees hundreds more in coming weeks and no way to serve the students. He’d like to set up a virtual academy in each school for quarantined students, but he needs assurance the state won’t dock the district when it is audited months from now.
Confusion over terminology?
The problem, in part, may be semantics.
Asked if teachers can offer distance learning to students in quarantine while they do in-person instruction, the California Department of Education answered in legalese: “Distance learning provisions are no longer in effect. The authorizing statute for distance learning sunsetted at the end of the 2020-21 school year.”
Asked if schools can revive distance learning for classes and schools under a Covid quarantine, the department gave the same oblique answer.
But call it virtual learning or synchronous or concurrent instruction, and it would appear that AB 130 doesn’t preclude it. Fresno Unified and Montebello Unified are operating under that assumption.
Separate from eLearn, a long-term independent study program for students who sign up for the school year, Fresno is offering short-term independent study that gives students in quarantine two options. One requires teachers to live stream during class time and to provide students with assignments sent electronically. The other requires teachers to provide hard copies of class materials plus limited synchronous instruction: 30 minutes daily for students in transitional kindergarten through sixth grade; up to 30 minutes two or three times per week for grades seven and eight; and up to 30 minutes weekly for grades nine-12. Both options meet the instructional minimums of AB 130.
Fresno Unified and the Fresno Teachers Association agreed that independent study would take effect as soon as a student is identified for quarantine and a parent signs a master agreement. “We’re not waiting. We feel that kids have lost so much instruction already as it is,” said Carlos Castillo, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and professional learning.
Shortages of teachers and time were obstacles for Montebello Unified, a district with 25,000 students in Los Angeles. It began the school year with some substitute teachers in classrooms. The district’s independent study program now has more than 1,200 students and 44 teachers.
Montebello Unified students in quarantine must enter into an agreement for short-term independent study. The materials they complete during their quarantine are created and graded by their classroom teacher. And while this option has worked since the start of the school year on Aug. 12, district administrators were considering offering a form of hybrid or distance learning before AB 130 was passed, said Kaivan Yuen, assistant superintendent of educational services. Now, he added, “We’re complying with what we’re asked to do.”
San Bernardino City Unified, with 47,000 students, has been inundated with requests for independent study. It anticipated 500 students and now has enrolled 2,000 in its virtual academy. It has 954 students on the waiting list due to a lack of teachers. The district took down its data dashboard this week and declined to say how many additional students are in quarantine.
Those on the waitlist are being served through short-term independent study, with teachers at their home school providing instruction and materials through Google classroom. Students use the platform to communicate with teachers through chat, download assignments and upload their work. As for students in quarantine, the district is working on logistics, such as creating a universal master agreement for families, said Sandra Rodriguez, assistant superintendent for student services. Among the challenges, AB 130 requires extra paperwork for independent study; teachers would have to assign work and track progress differently for independent study students than for students in the classroom.
“We’re trying to be resilient to meet students’ needs. We don’t want to throw up our hands and say ‘Uncle’; we are trying our best,” Rodriguez said.
Derick Lennox, senior director of governmental relations and legal affairs for the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, said he hopes the state affirms that school districts can duplicate whatever virtual instruction they adopted last year, as long as they meet the requirements of AB 130. But, he said, districts need help beyond that. “They can create virtual academies overnight,” but not without enough staff, he said.
Lennox said the Legislature has a number of options: raise the earning limit for retired educators and school employees limited by state pension laws, ease the student/teacher ratio for independent study during the quarantine, and loosen rules for using teachers with California credentials from outside the district to teach online courses this year. All of these require changes in the statute, he said.
Lennox acknowledged that “tweaks to the law are going to be hard to come by.” AB 130 required extensive negotiations, he said, and legislative leaders “think the law is flexible and — with all the money they threw at districts — why can’t districts figure it out?”
Pleasanton Unified Superintendent David Haglund said “the issue causing the most nervousness” is the new rule requiring the return of an independent study student to in-person instruction within five days of a family’s request. Not only is it “onerous and difficult” to comply with, but it can conflict with a family’s desire to be placed in their regular school. “If the law said a student can go back to a home school as soon as a spot is available, it would not be an issue,” he said.
On Wednesday, Los Angeles Unified stated in an email that it is cautiously optimistic that state legislators may consider further clarifying and adding flexibility for independent study options and that they’ll recognize the impact of a quarantine.
But Peplinski said it has been frustrating trying to get legislators to acknowledge problems. “They set this position (in AB 130) and backpedaling does not appear to be an option for them until critical mass dictates it.”
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