California school districts brace for an online back-to-school season

Allyson Lng, a junior at Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, completes Algebra homework online. Photo: Kiana Liu

Most California schools are preparing for a new reality of entirely remote classes this fall, after Gov. Gavin Newsom last week announced that schools cannot offer in-person instruction if they are in counties the state is closely monitoring for coronavirus spread.

That means it is back to the drawing board for the many districts that were previously planning on offering a variety of options to students and parents, ranging from in-person classes and online instruction to hybrid approaches that involve a blend of both.

Distance learning “is a challenge in any experience,” Newsom said in his daily briefing on Wednesday.

In-person instruction would be far preferable, he said. “Our number one desire is to get our schools back open, in person, with high quality social emotional learning, not just academic learning, that is essential to the development of our children.”

But keeping schools closed for in-person instruction in counties on the state’s Covid-19 monitoring list is necessary to reduce infection rates in California, he said.

District officials interviewed by EdSource said they felt relieved to now have a clearer set of expectations from the state about when and how to bring students back to campus. At the same time, they said the future is still uncertain, and they are trying to be prepared for to make further pivots should they be necessary.

And despite the greater certainty Newsom has introduced into the school fall landscape, cases of Covid-19 are now increasing in California, and teachers and administrators are also preparing for more changes that could come at any point, depending on the course of the pandemic in the coming weeks and months.

For now, planning blueprints for hybrid and in-person instruction models that districts have been working on intensively for weeks or months are on hold as school officials in the more than 30 counties on the state’s monitoring list refocus their sights on distance learning.

That is the case in Sanger Unified in Fresno County, one of the counties being monitored by the state.

“In-person, face-to-face instruction we believe is the best for our students, and we thought we could pull it off, especially in elementary with social distancing,” said Tim Lopez, associate superintendent of educational services in Sanger Unified. “But we know it’s important to limit the community spread, so we want to be a part of that.”

Last month, in response to the clear need to offer improved distance learning after its rushed rollout in the spring, California legislators in June passed the state’s 2020-21 budget bill with detailed requirements regarding remote learning. School districts have to implement the provisions of the bill in order to receive funding from the state.

As a result of Gov. Newsom’s order last week, the requirements are getting closer scrutiny. Among others, school officials have to confirm that students have access to the necessary technology to participate in online classes, take attendance, monitor weekly progress and ensure teachers interact daily with students.

Until last week, parents in Sanger Unified had the opportunity to choose between four different options for returning to school: completely in-person instruction, a fully online curriculum, a hybrid schedule, or a homeschooling option where students work with their parents and also receive support from teachers via a district-run charter school.

But now, all students will start the year off with distance learning. That will include daily live online lessons with teachers, Lopez said, as well as offering regular office hours when students can reach teachers for additional support. “Especially at the lower grades, teachers found we need to have timely and constant feedback from students,” Lopez said.

He said all the work the district has done in drawing up other instructional models will not be wasted. Having a list of options already on hand could help the district pivot to in-person or online with short notice, Lopez said. The district’s original fully online option will now be extended to all students. When health conditions improve, the plan is to give parents the option to have students return to school part-time or remain with full distance learning.

Some researchers worry that districts that were focused on offering hybrid instruction — with some classes offered in person, and others remotely — they may not have put in the necessary time to set up a high quality distance learning program.

“We are pretty concerned that this move to virtual doesn’t have an equal amount of planning behind it,” Robin Lake, director of the Center of Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, said during an Education Writers Association panel discussion on Thursday.

In fact, some districts, like Corona-Norco Unified in Riverside County, were hoping all their students would return for in-person instruction in August. Earlier this summer, the district crafted a detailed plan for how students and staff could practice social distancing on campus and implement guidelines for masks and sanitation requirements when schools reopened.

But as the number of coronavirus cases climbed in Riverside County, which is on the state’s monitoring list, Superintendent Michael Lin said it became clear that a full return would not be possible. Now the district is now planning to start the school year off on Aug. 11 with all students learning remotely,

“We figured back in June that we would have time by August to implement safety measures to bring students back,” said Lin. “The key is to return as safely as possible, it’s not about returning as quickly as possible.”

Despite the changes his district has had to make, Lin said he was relieved by the governor’s order on Friday because it sets clear standards and expectations across the state. “For me, that’s the right decision. We all want to return, but we can’t do it if it’s not safe,” Lin said. “If teachers don’t feel safe, what kind of teaching will we have?”

Distance learning proved to ineffective for many students last spring when schools closed suddenly for in-person instruction, and now some districts are seeking to come up with creative solutions to ensure greater success for students in an only-online environment.

San Francisco Unified, for example, is planning to open up 40 in-person “learning hubs,” or spaces where students can go in-person to access digital coursework and receive help. The program will prioritize low-income families, foster children and other students in a difficult situation for remote learning, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Thursday.

Many districts are now re-creating plans while recognizing that health conditions and state and local requirements and guidelines could change any day.

San Ramon Valley Unified near Walnut Creek in the East Bay voted to approve a hybrid learning model on June 14. But less than 36 hours later, the district received notice about the upcoming announcement from Newsom about school closures and began to re-evaluate its plans. The school district is located in Contra Costa County, which is on the state’s monitoring list.

At the same time, the district heard from its local public health authority that contact tracing of the spread of the disease in the district would be a challenge, according to Chris George, the district’s director of communications. By June 16, just two days after deciding upon a hybrid model, and even before Newsom formally made his announcement, the board reversed its earlier decision and voted to begin the school year with distance learning.

“We all share the goal of getting kids back into the classroom as soon as it’s safe,” George said. “As we’ve seen since the beginning of March, this means we must all prepare for change.”

Newsom echoed similar feelings of frustration — along with acceptance of the new remote learning reality that it appears most districts across the state will have to embrace this fall. “Clearly we have a lot of work to do for more rigorous distance learning,” he said. “Students, staff and parents all prefer in-classroom instruction, but only if it can be done safely.”

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