Why some school districts are open for in-person instruction but in some cases, neighboring ones aren’t

The first grade classroom of teacher Courtney Meyer with desks separated for social distancing at Alta Vista Elementary in the Redondo Beach Unified School District on Feb. 2, 2021.

A growing number of school districts in California are moving toward reopening campuses, but the process has been complicated, in some cases resulting in districts near each other operating on vastly different reopening schedules.

Most schools in Los Angeles Unified are closed for in-person instruction, but many in nearby Orange County are open. Elementary schools in Piedmont — a small city in Alameda County — are open but in adjacent Oakland they’re closed. In the Central Valley, Merced High School is open but Turlock High, just up Highway 99, is mostly closed.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed an incentive plan intended to prod schools to reopen, but superintendents and school boards in each district must also answer to teachers, parents and local public health officials — many of whom have competing demands.

“It’s been incredibly challenging,” said Alameda County schools superintendent LK Monroe. “Superintendents get into this field because we want to solve problems and make things better for kids. But this is a time when it’s really difficult to know if you’re making the right decision. … And the stakes are very high.”

The decision to reopen campuses lies with district superintendents and school boards, who rely on federal, state and county public health data to determine when and how it’s safe to reopen. They also have to consider a wide array of safety measures: masks, plastic shields and hand-washing stations; Covid testing for students and staff; the availability of vaccines; classroom disinfecting; social-distancing protocols and upgraded ventilation systems.

Marks on the floor at Havens Elementary School indicate the placement of desks and chairs for socially distanced learning and a plexiglass barrier is in front of the teacher’s desk

Teachers can also play a major role in the decision to reopen campuses. In some districts, teachers unions have the ultimate say because their membership has to approve changes to their contracts that would allow for in-person working conditions. In other districts, teachers have limited input or options about returning to the classroom because changes in their working conditions don’t require changes to their contracts.

Researchers at the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington have been studying school reopenings for months, and noticed some patterns across the country. So far, campuses in large urban districts are most likely to be closed, small rural districts are most likely to be open, and suburban districts are most likely to be offering a hybrid model, meaning that students divide their time between virtual learning at home and attending school in person.

The amount of resources in a district has so far has not been a factor, researchers found, except that suburban districts might have more staffing and space to implement a hybrid model, and newer buildings that have modern ventilation systems.

“The biggest pattern we’ve noticed is that reopening plans tend to be very much based on locale,” said Alice Opalka, a research analyst for the Center for Reinventing Public Education. “But it’s tough. There’s state guidelines, county guidelines. Districts feel they’re going at it alone.”

Opalka and her colleagues have been tracking 477 districts across the country, examining trends in how schools are providing instruction during the pandemic. They’re also tracking schools that have opened but then rolled back in-person instruction due to an outbreak at school or when virus rates spiked in their communities.

But conditions change by the day, Opalka noted, and are likely to continue changing as more people get vaccinated and variants spread throughout communities. Infection rates have been falling in most areas, but may begin rising if variants spread faster than people can get vaccinated.


Opalka and her colleagues have several theories as to why many large urban districts have remained closed, including:

  • Teachers unions’ in large cities tend to be politically powerful and well-organized, giving them more leverage in reopening plans.
  • The pandemic hit cities before it spread to rural areas, and because much still remains unknown about the virus, school officials tended to react more cautiously.
  • Due to historic inequities, families of color — who are more likely to live in cities — have higher rates of distrust in the education and public health systems. As a result, they may be more hesitant to send children back to school until virus infection rates are lower.
  • Cities have more multi-generational households and essential workers, leading school officials to be more cautious about reopening schools because of the risk of virus transmission.
  • Larger districts have more complicated logistical barriers to reopening.

Los Angeles Unified, the largest district in the state, won’t reopen elementary schools until all 25,000 school staff members are vaccinated, said Superintendent Austin Beutner. The district has already upgraded school ventilation systems and implemented a testing and contact-tracing system.

“As difficult as the decision was to close school classrooms, reopening is even harder,” Beutner said last week. “We cannot — and will not — compromise on health and safety.”

Meanwhile, in Fullerton School District in nearby Orange County, elementary and middle schools have been open for in-person instruction since October, with students having an option to continue with distance learning if they choose. Capistrano Unified, Orange County’s largest district, has a hybrid model for high schools while elementary students are attending in person. Neither district is requiring vaccinations for school staff.

Mary Barlow, Kern County superintendent of schools, said the experience of reopening schools is like “running a multi-national corporation,” balancing a constant stream of data and guidelines.

“One day I was on one call, texting with someone else, a second phone was ringing, and I’m trying to watch the governor on TV issue new guidance,” she said. “It was chaos. But as frustrating as it can be, I feel like we’re continually improving.”

It’s helped that Kern County had already implemented a countywide education task force that included all 47 K-12 districts, community colleges and Cal State Bakersfield. School officials were already meeting regularly and had developed good working relationships, she said.

“It made a world of difference. We were able to pivot quickly, and discuss data as it came up, going beyond whatever guidance we were getting from the Centers for Disease Control and California Department of Public Health,” she said.

Kern County schools represent the full gamut of pandemic learning. Smaller districts, like 16-student Blake Elementary, have been open for months, while Kern High School District in Bakersfield, with more than 41,000 students, remains closed for in-person instruction.

“It’s been very challenging because people don’t understand why some districts are closed while a neighboring district might be open,” Barlow said. “We tell them that each district needs to decide what’s best for the kids in that community. … We’re all trying very hard to put measures in place to get schools reopened as soon as possible.”

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