Quick Guide: Where do things stand on in-person instruction in California?

May 18, 2021

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 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:

“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.

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