Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Polaris
Alta Vista Elementary School Principal Karin Sato opens the door for first grade students after they are screened for Covid-19 symptons on the second day of classes at Redondo Beach Unified on Feb. 2, 2021.
This guide was last updated on May 18, 2021.

This guide provides answers to frequently asked questions about how California is moving forward with plans for reopening the state’s K-12 schools. We will continue to update it as the situation evolves. 

Are schools required to reopen for in-person instruction?

California law does not require schools to reopen for in-person instruction during the current school year. However, in legislation approved last June accompanying the 2020-21 state budget, the Legislature specified that school districts and charter schools “shall offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible.”

The Legislature reiterated that position in March in Assembly Bill 86, the main law governing school reopening.

In addition, in announcing his “Safe Schools for All” guidelines on Dec. 30, 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom said that “in-person is the best setting to meet not only the core learning needs of students, but also their mental health and social-emotional needs.” And on April 6, Newsom and state health officials said they expect all schools and higher education institutions to open for full-time in-person instruction in the fall, following the announcement that California intends to retire its “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” color-coded tier system on June 15.

How many students are currently attending in-person classes in California? 

As of the end of April, the majority of students in California were still learning via distance learning.

However, participation in in-person instruction varies considerably from district to district, and often from school to school. Many school districts are offering full-time in-person instruction five days a week, and some are offering none.

In some cases, “in-person” instruction does not mean that students are being taught in-person by their teachers, but they might be getting help in the classroom while still learning remotely on their computers.

As of April 30, 87% of California’s public schools (not including charter schools) were offering some form of in-person instruction. However, fewer than half of students had returned to campus either full-time or part-time in a hybrid model (a combination of distance and in-person instruction).

Only 16 percent of students were attending school for in-person classes full time.  A total of 55% of all public school students, including those in charter schools, were at home still learning via distance learning, as of April 30.

For more details, check out EdSource’s report here.

What qualifies as in-person instruction?

State law, in the form AB 86, offers a very broad definition of in-person instruction, at least as it applies to the current school year.  The law does not specify how many hours or days a student should have access to it.   As noted above, it says school districts must only offer in-person instruction “to the greatest extent possible” and if they do, that “may include hybrid models offering fewer than five days per week of in-person instruction.”

The law does not specify what proportion of the school day or curriculum should be in-person, and how much should be offered via distance learning.  That explains, at least in part, the wide range of offerings across the state.

When will schools be fully reopened for in-person instruction?

On April 6, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he expects all schools and higher education institutions to open for full-time, in-person instruction in the fall.  However, many districts are still expected to offer distance learning in the fall, at least to some students desiring it, and in some form.

Is it safe to bring students back?

Federal and state health officials have said for months that it is relatively safe to bring students back to school, starting with the earliest grades, if health and safety practices are implemented and followed.

In a statement accompanying California’s Safe Schools for All plan, the California Department of Public Health asserted the following:

  • Research across the globe shows that children get Covid-19 less often than adults, and when they do get sick, they get less sick than adults.
  • In studies of open schools in America and around the world, children do not seem to be major sources of transmission — either to each other or to adults.
  • The growing body of evidence is particularly strong regarding lower risks in elementary schools.
  • Even in communities with many Covid-19 cases, we do not see many outbreaks in schools. That’s because the right precautions can stop outbreaks before they start.

“We have learned a great deal since the beginning of the pandemic, and both national and international studies demonstrate the relatively low risks and high benefits of educating students in classrooms — especially for elementary grades,” the statement said.

Currently, schools will still be expected to require that students and adults wear masks at school, including staff and students who are fully vaccinated.

Under what conditions can schools reopen for in-person instruction in California?

Currently, all schools are permitted to open for in-person in California, based on where their counties are ranked on the state’s colored-coded system.

According to March guidance issued by the California Department of Public Health, elementary and secondary schools can open if their counties are in the purple tier if the average daily case rate of new Covid-10 infections is less than 25 per 100,000 residents, or if they are in the red, orange and yellow tiers, as long as they implement required health and safety practices.

As of May 11, no counties are in the purple tier, 11 counties are in the red tier, 39 are in the orange tier and nine are in the yellow tier.  However, final decisions about whether a district reopens for in-person instruction are made by local school officials, often after negotiations with its teachers union.

However, the state plans to scrap the color-coded system by June 15, so the entire system that has guided school reopenings since last summer will no longer be in effect.

Do children have to attend schools that reopen for in-person instruction?

No. State law says that school districts must offer distance learning for children whose parents don’t want them to receive in-person instruction. In fact, surveys show that in many districts, a majority of parents prefer their children continue to receive instruction remotely.  That is especially the case in large urban districts.

Are there racial, ethnic or economic differences among schools and students offering or participating in in-person classes?

Yes. A number of reports have shown that white students are much more likely to attend in-person classes, especially compared to Black and Hispanic students, as well as Asian students in some districts. An EdSource analysis of April 30 data found that students from wealthier districts were three times more likely to be in school full time than students in low-income districts.

Are there financial incentives for schools to reopen for in-person instructions?  

Yes. Gov. Newsom pushed for creating a $2 billion incentive fund to encourage districts to open their schools.   Under the state law approved in March (AB 86), school districts could receive some of these funds if they reopened for students with extra needs or requiring special attention and offered in-person instruction to students in regular classes in specified grades anytime between April 1 and May 15.

What did school districts have to do to qualify for the funds?

To get their full share of the $2 billion in incentive funding through AB 86, school districts had to offer in-person instruction for students in transitional kindergarten, kindergarten, first and second grades beginning on April 1 if they were in the red, orange and yellow tiers, or if they were in the purple tier with an average daily infection rate of less than 25 per 100,000 people.

They also had to offer in-person instruction for “individuals with exceptional needs” and “to all prioritized pupil groups” by April 1.  Schools that did not reopen by April 1 lost 1% of the funds they were eligible for, for each day they did not offer those services through May 15.  After May 15, they were no longer eligible for any funds.

What is the definition of a “prioritized pupil group”? 

The definition of students in “a prioritized pupil group” is broad. In addition to special education students, these are students “at risk for abuse, neglect, or exploitation; homeless and foster youth; English learners; students without access to a computing device, software and high-speed internet necessary to participate in online instruction; and disengaged pupils,” and other students that districts determine have struggled the most during the pandemic.

What if more students wanted in-person instruction than a district was able to handle?

According to state law, if the number of “prioritized pupils” exceeded a district’s “practical capacity” to maintain health and safety, a district does not have to serve those students.  They only have to do so to their “maximum practical capacity.”

How much will each district receive from the state’s incentive fund to reopen?

Amounts vary considerably, but they are substantial.  Funds are allocated based on what a district receives per student under the Local Control Funding Formula — a base grant, and additional supplemental and concentration grants determined by the proportions of low-income, foster and homeless students and English learners in a district.

What if districts didn’t offer in-person instruction by April 1?

The funds they would have received on April 1 decreased by 1% for each instructional day that schools were not open through May 15.  If schools opened after May 15, school districts would not get any additional funding.

Do staff and students have to be vaccinated before they can participate in on-campus activities? 

No. If these were required, the majority of students would not be able to return to campus, as vaccines only became available to 12- to 15-year-olds beginning May 13, and thus they would not be fully vaccinated before the end of the school year.  Vaccines are still not available for younger children.

As for staff, requirements for returning to school vary from district to district, but CDC and California health officials have said for months that it is safe for teachers and students to return to school, even without vaccinations. In many cases, districts have negotiated agreements with teachers unions based on teachers returning if they are vaccinated or not. Because the vaccines have been approved through emergency regulations, school districts are constrained from requiring that staff be vaccinated.

However, California has gone out of its way to make the vaccine available to teachers and other school employees. Beginning March 1, Gov. Newsom set aside 10% of all vaccines available statewide each week for school employees, including teachers, until they had been offered to all who wanted them, including those who were not coming to their schools to offer instruction.

What must districts spend the incentive funds on? 

Funds must be spent “for any purpose consistent with providing in-person instruction, including Covid-19 testing, cleaning, personal protective equipment, facility needs, staffing costs, and social and mental health supports provided in conjunction with in-person instruction.”

Are districts required to negotiate or come to an agreement with their teachers unions before offering in-person instruction?

No. But the legislation does not override the bargaining rights of employee unions, which can demand safety and health protections that the state does not require for reopening.

Is the state offering other resources to assist with reopening?

Yes. AB 86 sets aside $4.6 billion proposed by Newsom in his January budget for districts to implement programs that address the harm caused by Covid-19 to students’ academic progress and their emotional and mental health. School districts must adopt a plan by June 1 on how they plan to use their funds by completing a state template that requires that they list, by category, how they plan to spend the money.

Before adopting the plan, they must consult with parents and members of the public.

How will funding levels be determined?

As with the $2 billion return-to-school incentive grants, the Local Control Funding Formula will determine how the $4.6 billion will be distributed to districts.

To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.

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  1. Niyah 2 months ago2 months ago

    I am only 10 but I am happy that the government is opening back up school districts and I am actually going back in August I think and I go to Adelanto District and I love it so far even though there is this one kid that sometimes irritates me but other than that I love it ~ Niyah Mei Sina Maiava~

  2. Anthony Certa 2 months ago2 months ago

    Teachers that don’t want to teach in person are the biggest anti-vaxxers. They believe the vaccines don’t work and therefore, why are we even bothering to get vaccinated in the first place.

  3. Tristan Moreno 4 months ago4 months ago

    me as a 12 year old boy think that we should go back to school i am getting depressed day by day and i know people will read this and not care but i truly believe that online school is a waste of time i think that we should go to real school to socialize and see out friends and just sitting on a computer all day isn't making kids smarter it is making them … Read More

    me as a 12 year old boy think that we should go back to school i am getting depressed day by day and i know people will read this and not care but i truly believe that online school is a waste of time i think that we should go to real school to socialize and see out friends and just sitting on a computer all day isn’t making kids smarter it is making them more and more sadder we cant talk in the zoom class we cant chat we cant do anything communication and that sucks it really does

    Replies

    • Niyah Mei Sina Maiava 2 months ago2 months ago

      I can’t change much at all but I can tell you that if you go outside more it really helps with depression

  4. PTAMom 5 months ago5 months ago

    There's nothing in this article that indicates that Gov. Newsom puts kids first in making this decision. Well, because he clearly hasn't. The reason we don't see so many cases among kids and young adults is because they have remained in protected environments. When is he going to double check scientific data on school students - after there's a surge and god forbid students die?? He hasn't even moved Middle and High … Read More

    There’s nothing in this article that indicates that Gov. Newsom puts kids first in making this decision. Well, because he clearly hasn’t. The reason we don’t see so many cases among kids and young adults is because they have remained in protected environments. When is he going to double check scientific data on school students – after there’s a surge and god forbid students die??

    He hasn’t even moved Middle and High school kids that react almost as adults do to the virus into the vaccine line. Not only can’t we mandate vaccines, they aren’t available for school students that do choose to get vaccinated. This is a blatant self-interest move.

    Replies

    • MamaKat 5 months ago5 months ago

      As stated in the article, "In studies of open schools in America and around the world, children do not seem to be major sources of transmission — either to each other or to adults. The growing body of evidence is particularly strong regarding lower risks in elementary schools. Even in communities with many Covid-19 cases, we do not see many outbreaks in schools. That’s because the right precautions can stop outbreaks before they start. " This … Read More

      As stated in the article,

      “In studies of open schools in America and around the world, children do not seem to be major sources of transmission — either to each other or to adults. The growing body of evidence is particularly strong regarding lower risks in elementary schools. Even in communities with many Covid-19 cases, we do not see many outbreaks in schools. That’s because the right precautions can stop outbreaks before they start. ”

      This is not a case of the kids being in “protected environments” i.e. at home. The evidence has shown that kids are safe at school, especially when the appropriate precautions are taken, even when cases in the general population are high.

  5. Shannon Stark 5 months ago5 months ago

    I think there are several reasons in-person learning isn't happening more frequently, in more districts. The safety is an issue, but then the inconvenience is the other. Students can only be at school for a few hours rather than full days. If siblings are at different schools, then they will be on different schedules. Parents can't afford to be transporting the kiddos all day. These obstacles seem insurmountable at this point. High school … Read More

    I think there are several reasons in-person learning isn’t happening more frequently, in more districts. The safety is an issue, but then the inconvenience is the other. Students can only be at school for a few hours rather than full days. If siblings are at different schools, then they will be on different schedules. Parents can’t afford to be transporting the kiddos all day.

    These obstacles seem insurmountable at this point. High school students go to school for 2 hours, home for 2 hours, back to school for 2 hours for sports. It’s a real dilemma for working parents.

  6. Traci Arthur 5 months ago5 months ago

    Teachers and school staff should be vaccinated before students come back.

  7. Matt J. 6 months ago6 months ago

    This plan might have been OK if not for the new, faster spreading variant B.1.1.7. But the variant is already in California, it means the measures we have been taking are no longer enough. We need stricter measures, e.g. more than 6′ separation, N95 or KN5 masks, not just scarves. But this plan does not call for these, so it will spread the illness and cause a surge.

  8. ana Maria alongi 7 months ago7 months ago

    The only Covid test I did, using my health insurance (Anthem-Blue Cross), charged me $30 as a copay. I won’t be able to add $60 per month, if testing twice a week is required, to my monthly budget.

  9. Debbie 7 months ago7 months ago

    My doctor just told me that so many unnecessary tests are being done that it is overwhelming the system. Only those exposed or with symptoms should get tests. And Newsom wants staff and students tested weekly? Can you imagine the overwhelming pressure on our labs? More chances for mistakes, errors and obvious delays in test results. Ignorantt, unrealistic to think this will work!

  10. Rashmi Ahuja 7 months ago7 months ago

    What about substitute teachers? Are they also covered in the 1B plan? No one is talking about these substitutes. Please inform and announce.

  11. Debbie 7 months ago7 months ago

    Newsom is bribing districts with a cash carrot to put teachers at risk. I am disgusted! Frontline workers get full ppe to be around individuals or it’s a video call. Teachers get a mask! How are phonics and phonemic awareness going to be taught to our primary students when teachers are wearing a mask? They need to see my mouth! And there is no way any of these kiddos will have safe social distancing. Classroom … Read More

    Newsom is bribing districts with a cash carrot to put teachers at risk. I am disgusted! Frontline workers get full ppe to be around individuals or it’s a video call. Teachers get a mask! How are phonics and phonemic awareness going to be taught to our primary students when teachers are wearing a mask? They need to see my mouth! And there is no way any of these kiddos will have safe social distancing.

    Classroom square footage does not support 6 foot distancing in the majority of classrooms including mine! This is a slap in the face to educators. Have the Governor/Board members come visit my room when this happens – they won’t- too afraid. Unbelievable ignorance!

  12. Patrick Hale 7 months ago7 months ago

    Check out the National COVID-19 School Response Dashboard, https://statsiq.co1.qualtrics.com/public-dashboard/v0/dashboard/5f78e5d4de521a001036f78e#/dashboard/5f78e5d4de521a001036f78e?pageId=Page_f6071bf7-7db4-4a61-942f-ade4cce464de
    The latest numbers from Texas show that staff are infected at 175% compared to the community and 300% compared to students. It is unethical to force employees to do what you are not willing to do. How many local Boards are meeting face to face? That, at a minimum, should be required in districts who force staff back into the classroom. No education without vaccination!

  13. Igor 7 months ago7 months ago

    First he helped create hysteria, while personally attending gatherings maskless, now he somehow has to “encourage” sheep not be afraid of the wolf, while still crying wolf.

  14. Ann 7 months ago7 months ago

    Gov. Newsom needs to consider these children and the future of Covid-19 side effects. Why is that okay to send elementary kids back and not junior high or high school students?

    Replies

    • T R Weller-Curtner 7 months ago7 months ago

      Data, Ann, data. What does data show about infections rate for 5-10 year-olds? What about the structure of secondary vs. elementary schools in California?

  15. Susan Macias 7 months ago7 months ago

    I cant wait for. Gavin to be recalled!