Photo: Brian Feulner/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris
The guide was updated Aug. 24 with additional questions and answers.

The opening of schools has led to additional questions and some confusion about the details and options permitted under independent study.

Independent study is the only choice for families that either aren’t ready to send their children physically back to the classroom or whose children temporarily cannot attend because of Covid exposure or infection.

Assembly Bill 130, which lays out the requirements for independent study, is either silent or ambiguous on several issues that concern parents and school districts (see sections 53 to 55 and 66 to 74).

Among the issues not clarified in the latest FAQ issued Aug. 23 by the California Department of Education is how schools should handle providing education for individual students or classes under a Covid quarantine.

In coming weeks, the department may update its FAQ or the Legislature may modify AB 130 to respond to concerns.

What is independent study?

Independent study is an alternative education program that addresses individual student needs and learning styles. The model allows students to complete their academics outside the traditional classroom setting.

How does it work?

All independent study courses are required to be taught under the supervision of a teacher with a relevant subject-matter credential. They must also follow the district-adopted curriculum, and work is governed by a written agreement signed by the student, the supervising teacher and parent.

Independent study does not measure attendance by “seat time,” the number of instructional minutes per day, week and year that students are required to be at school. In California, the typical minimum number of instructional minutes per day varies by grade: 200 for kindergarten, 280 for grades one to three; 300 for grades four to eight, and 360 for high school.

Instead, in California, traditional independent study programs count attendance based on how long it would take to complete a lesson or assignment — and not by daily contact with a teacher. The state also offers course-based independent study; it counts attendance based on whether students make satisfactory progress in those courses.

Because it is an individualized learning plan for specific students, the program has fewer accountability metrics than in-person instruction has; supporters say independent study also enables students to master subjects at their own pace.

Who qualifies for independent study?

Independent study is open to any student in transitional kindergarten through 12th grade. Independent study programs traditionally have served child actors in the TV or film industry, aspiring Olympic athletes, exceptional students who want to accelerate faster than their districts can provide, or students who have been bullied. Students continuing their studies while traveling have also used independent study for credit.

To accommodate immune-compromised parents and students in fragile health, the Legislature added a category in AB 130, the trailer bill detailing the 2021-22 budget: “individualized study for a pupil whose health would be put at risk by in-person instruction, as determined by the parent or guardian of the pupil.” Students are not required to provide a medical statement. Some parents are citing their opposition to requiring their children to wear masks in schools as a reason to pursue independent study.

Why did the Legislature rewrite the independent study statute for 2021-22?

Expecting that a full return in-person instruction in the fall following school closures resulting from Covid-19, the Legislature let the one-year statute establishing funding and requirements for distance learning to expire on June 30.

That left independent study as the fallback for districts to provide an education outside of in-person instruction. However, because independent study requires little supervision, state lawmakers added new requirements to provide more accountability and contact with teachers under Assembly Bill 130, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed on July 9. It requires some live instruction time for remote students but did not specify a minimum amount. Aware that some districts failed to track chronically absent students last year, AB 130 requires districts to more extensively document student work and progress.

How much interaction and instruction must students receive under independent study?

Some student advocates argue that medically vulnerable students should be entitled to a remote program with live instruction comparable to what students in school receive. Imposing a duplicative structure, when many districts are already having difficulty hiring teachers for in-person instruction, would be implausible for most districts on short notice.

AB 130’s wording is intentionally broad, recognizing that the youngest students in independent study must receive more teacher interaction than older students.

For transitional kindergarten to third grade, students must receive daily synchronous or live instruction. For students in grades four to eight, there must be “an opportunity” for daily interaction and weekly live instruction. For high school students, there must be some form of synchronous instruction. “Opportunity” is not defined, leaving school administrators to wonder if they’ll be held responsible if students decline the offer.

What is the difference between live interaction and live instruction? 

Live interaction refers to contact made between a student and a teacher, but this does not necessarily have to include teaching. It could consist of wellness checks, phone communication or in-person or online check-ins.

Synchronous instruction refers to two-way communication between a student and teacher, whether in-person, by phone or online. It can take place in a classroom-style setting, in small groups or one-on-one.

What does it mean that a district must provide an opportunity for live interaction or synchronous instruction?

The law does define the term; it is unclear what should happen if a student chooses not to participate or if the district’s “opportunity” conflicts with a student’s availability.

What’s the student-teacher ratio for independent study?

Under state law, the number of students that an independent study teacher can supervise cannot exceed the average teacher-to-student ratio for instruction in a district’s other programs. For TK-three, the maximum number to receive state funding is 24-to-1.

How can a parent find out what a district plans to offer for independent study?

A district must post on its website its plan for independent study, updated to comply with AB 130. If it’s not there, ask why.

By mid-August, the school board should have approved its independent study program for 2021-22. It should include information and reassurances on the following elements:

  • How long from the date of an assignment to when a student must complete it;
  • Level of satisfactory educational progress and number of missed assignments before conducting an evaluation of the student;
  • Content is aligned to grade-level standards and will be taught by credentialed employees;
  • For high schools, pupils will have access to all courses required for graduation and for meeting admissions criteria to the University of California and California State University – the A-G course sequence;
  • Reengagement strategies for students not in attendance for more than three days in any week.

What might independent study look like this fall?

It will differ significantly across the state. Districts will have the flexibility to expand instruction and daily contact required under the law. Some districts, such as Davis Joint Unified and Pajaro Valley Unified, have created virtual academies with live instruction and off-line learning. In districts with fewer resources or those that have not had an independent study program, independent study could be much different from what distance learning looked like last year.

Some districts may choose to use flexibility in the revised independent study statute to fashion a distance learning program on a block schedule approximating what students receive in school, and opportunities to work with peers in small groups. But most districts won’t. Instead, there will be daily or weekly check-in times, with expectations of completing coursework, perhaps with instructional videos and online lessons comparable to in-person instruction. In Los Angeles Unified, all students who want remote learning will be directed to a central online option.

Do parents have any right of return to their school of record when they want to return from independent study?

The law does not address this issue. While it’s a smart policy to accommodate a parent’s school preference, districts may not be able to guarantee a spot at a neighborhood school to meet state-mandated student- to-teacher ratios. Some districts are guaranteeing spots at bilingual and other schools of choice but not the neighborhood school.

Can a district legally create a cutoff date or a wait list to register students for independent study?

AB 130 does not address either option. A cutoff date would likely be unenforceable, since the law requires that independent study be offered to all eligible students this year.

The law requires districts to return a student from independent study to classroom instruction within five days of a request, but it is silent on how quickly a district must enroll a student in independent study upon request.

A wait list may be unavoidable, and each day on a wait list leaves a student without an education. Parents in a number of districts have said they have waited days since the start of school even to be contacted about their request to enroll. Some are concerned their children will be cited for truancy.  The unstated assumption of AB 130 is that a district will move expeditiously to enroll a student or arrange an inter-district transfer.

Are students with disabilities entitled to services through independent study?

Students with disabilities, like other students, can request independent study. However, any change to a course of study requires approval of the team assigned to a student’s Individualized Education Plan. The IEP team must determine whether services can be provided remotely. Since an IEP team has 30 days to meet on a request, some children have been sitting at home for days without instruction as their parents await a meeting.

Victor Leung, director of education equity for the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, said some parents with IEPs have been told that they will lose access to services if they enroll in independent study. “Rather than force parents to choose, we hope schools can offer hybrid solutions” that would allow students to take classes in independent study while receiving services for their disability in person, he said.

Is an individual or a class of students entitled to temporary independent study if quarantined for Covid?

Yes, although some of the comprehensive requirements will not kick in until 15 days in independent study. Districts will have to pivot quickly, and the logistics of obtaining contracts from parents and hiring extra credentialed staff, if needed, could prove very challenging. Students in schools closed by wildfires are also entitled to independent study, although emergency waivers under other state laws may also apply, said Barrett Snider, who represents independent studies programs as a partner with Capitol Advisors, a Sacramento school consulting firm.

What should a parent do who is interested in independent study?

After learning about a district’s program, a parent’s next step would be to request a meeting with the teacher or teachers who’d be supervising the child. If a child is an English learner or student with a disability, ask about the services to be provided. A student with special needs can participate in independent study only if an individualized education plan allows it.

A contract, signed by a parent, student and supervising teacher, would include the following elements:

  • A plan for submitting assignments and reporting academic progress;
  • Objectives and methods of study;
  • Available resources, including textbooks and access to computers and internet connectivity;
  • The number of course credits or other measures of academic accomplishment for elementary-age students.

What can a parent do if independent study is not working out?

AB 130 was written to accommodate families that want to exit independent study. Families may choose to leave for any reason, and many may do so if the threat of delta transmission subsides or after the federal government allows vaccinations for children under 12. Districts are anticipating fluctuating numbers and must arrange for a student’s return to in-person instruction within five days of a request.

What can parents do if dissatisfied with a district’s offering for independent study?

Families can choose private schools if they can afford one, home schooling or one of several online charter schools, such as California Connections Academy or K12, although the Legislature has imposed a three-year moratorium on new online charters.

Families can also request to transfer to another district’s independent study program or virtual learning academy or, if offered, their local county office of education’s independent study program. A number of districts and the Los Angeles County Office of Education have indicated they’ll accept students from other districts. Districts shouldn’t complain if parents look elsewhere. Under the state budget, districts will be held harmless this year for a loss of revenue from a drop in enrollment.

Do parents have a right to an inter-district transfer if they aren’t satisfied with the district’s independent study?

No. The governing board of the district of residence and the district offering a transfer must agree on an inter-district transfer. Worried about losing a student’s funding, some districts view an inter-district transfer as an option of last resort.

Do districts have to offer independent study this year?

Yes, but they can seek a waiver from their county office if they can meet two conditions: They must prove that offering independent study will impose an unreasonable financial burden and that they are unable to enter into an interdistrict transfer agreement or contract with a county office of education. County surveys indicate only a few districts, mostly small or rural, plan to ask for a waiver.

Can a county office of education grant a waiver that permits a district to limit independent study due to a lack of staff?

Not as AB 130 currently reads, although a lack of staff may be the biggest factor for a school district’s difficulty meeting the requirement, especially on short notice. Staffing independent study usually requires additional teachers, not simply shifting teachers from the classroom to independent study. Constantly changing enrollment numbers in independent study will add complexity to meeting the demand for independent study. That said, a lack of staffing is not a permissible reason for a waiver.

Do charter schools have to offer independent study this year?

No, although Rocketship Public Schools is one charter school organization that plans to create a virtual school to serve medically vulnerable families from its 13 Bay Area schools. Most solo-operated charter schools don’t have the capacity for a parallel independent study program, and existing restrictions, which the Legislature didn’t waive, would make it difficult for many to try.

Can districts contract with providers of online courses, like Edgenuity?

This is an area that the Legislature or the California Department of Education should clarify since there is confusion. The department’s guidelines states that independent study teachers shall be a certificated teacher at a school district, charter school or county office of education. The California County Superintendents Educational Services Association interpreted this as removing the possibility of using those courses, taking “a major tool off the table to meet independent study demand.” But other attorneys representing school districts argue that districts can purchases providers’ curricula, materials and videos as long as the supervising teacher, who sets the work flow requirements and grades the work, is an appropriately credentialed employee of the district. Many districts are approaching it this way but want assurance they’ll be funded.

How does a parent decide if independent study is the right choice?

Under the best of circumstances, independent study isn’t for every student. Some students may not thrive working independently; it’s well suited for self-starters who can work without much monitoring and who don’t need a lot of peer camaraderie. Elementary students will require adult supervision.

With Covid, parents must weigh the benefits of personal interactions versus the risks of infection; the quality of the independent study program may tip the scale one way or the other.

Suggestions and further information from the California Department of Education on determining if independent study is right for your child can be found here. More information can be found at the California Department of Education  and at the Alameda County Office of Education. The Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law has produced this guide on parents’ rights with independent study.

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  1. Marie 2 months ago2 months ago

    The Assembly Bill stated that the school of record for magnet and dual language had five days to transfer from independent study to in person. I have seen it referenced several places. How come you state “no”?

  2. Jeffrey L 2 months ago2 months ago

    I recently finished my doctor of physical therapy program from Rutgers University in New Jersey, and we’ve obviously been doing the independent studies since Covid started. There are definitely pros and cons of this style of learning, however when it comes to practicum and learning where actual physical touch is required, it falls short.

  3. Margaret 2 months ago2 months ago

    This is a very helpful article. Thank you.

  4. Megan Meschery 2 months ago2 months ago

    Thank you for this information. It is very helpful. In the section: Can districts contract with providers of online courses, like Edgenuity? Your wrote that, "But other attorneys representing school districts argue that districts can purchases providers’ curricula, materials and videos as long as the supervising teacher, who sets the work flow requirements and grades the work, is an appropriately credentialed employee of the district." Can you define appropriately credentialed? I'm finding conflicting information on that. … Read More

    Thank you for this information. It is very helpful. In the section: Can districts contract with providers of online courses, like Edgenuity? Your wrote that, “But other attorneys representing school districts argue that districts can purchases providers’ curricula, materials and videos as long as the supervising teacher, who sets the work flow requirements and grades the work, is an appropriately credentialed employee of the district.”

    Can you define appropriately credentialed? I’m finding conflicting information on that. I’m wondering about 9-12 grade and if a single subject credential is required for a teacher providing IS to students taking different courses. Thank you.

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 2 months ago2 months ago

      Sorry for the delay, Megan: Great question with no simple answer. For the purpose of complying with traditional independent study, the “supervising teacher” need only be an employee of the district with a credential -- not a specific credential. However, it gets more complex in high school. For UC approval, the teacher needs to have an appropriate credential for the subject being taught. So while it may work for independent study compliance, it may not … Read More

      Sorry for the delay, Megan: Great question with no simple answer. For the purpose of complying with traditional independent study, the “supervising teacher” need only be an employee of the district with a credential — not a specific credential. However, it gets more complex in high school. For UC approval, the teacher needs to have an appropriate credential for the subject being taught. So while it may work for independent study compliance, it may not for other requirements like UC credit. Thanks to Barrett Snider of Capitol Advisors for his thoughts on this issue. I’ll continue to look for further clarification.

  5. tabh 2 months ago2 months ago

    Will there be more articles on how the independent study option is poor for our most vulnerable, health risk students? For example, many students with multiple, complex disabilities have severe health issues and will not be able to return to school because they are severely at risk immune wise. Yet they cannot do "independent study" without the 1:1 virtual assistance from a teacher or paraprofessional. So "independent study" as written is … Read More

    Will there be more articles on how the independent study option is poor for our most vulnerable, health risk students? For example, many students with multiple, complex disabilities have severe health issues and will not be able to return to school because they are severely at risk immune wise.

    Yet they cannot do “independent study” without the 1:1 virtual assistance from a teacher or paraprofessional. So “independent study” as written is not a FAPE option for those with complicated disabilities and health issues. Please address this in a future article.

  6. Tom 2 months ago2 months ago

    I took independent study in the 80’s when I was in High School and it was some of the best learning I did in High School. It prepared me for the “real world”