California directs districts to offer remote independent study this fall

March 20, 2020 - Oakland, California, United States: Juliette Schoenberger, (11), a 6th grader at Claremont Middle School does school work while she and her family self isolate during the shelter-in-place order, due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Kate Munsch / San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris)

UPDATE: EdSource reported Friday afternoon that Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed the education funding bill into law.

With the pandemic still reverberating across California, districts must offer students an independent study option this fall, but with improvements to what was offered during the shutdown and pre-pandemic.

After a year of cumbersome screen time, Gov. Gavin Newsom and other lawmakers have said that schools are expected to fully reopen for in-person instruction this fall. But some parents and students, especially those who are medically vulnerable, aren’t ready to return to “normal.”

For the 2021-22 school year only, school districts would be required to offer students a distance learning option for the upcoming school year through independent study, a remote educational model that was voluntary for districts to offer pre-pandemic.

The directive to offer independent study is detailed in SB 130, known as the TK-12 education trailer bill, released on Monday. The bill reflects an agreement among Newsom and the state Assembly and Senate, and elaborates on policies related to the state budget for 2021-22, which was approved by the Legislature and awaits Newsom’s signature. The SB 130 bill must also be approved by the full Legislature and signed by the governor.

It would replace a law that expired on June 30 that waived some in-person requirements for 2020-21 while also establishing rules aimed at improving the quality of distance learning during the pandemic, such as a minimum amount of live instruction per day.

“We all want the default program to be in-person learning, but there are many families who have been tragically impacted by this virus, and they are scared, especially those with little kids who aren’t vaccinated,” said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, a strategic adviser for Californians Together, a statewide education advocacy organization. “There needs to be an alternative for this year, and it needs to be better than what we did before.”

SB 130 would “authorize independent study for a pupil whose health would be put at risk by in-person instruction, as determined by the parent or guardian,” adding medical concerns to the list of reasons why students may opt for a remote instruction plan for the 2020-21 school year, according to the bill text.

“I hope we can give grace to families to make those decisions as broadly as possible,” said Atasi Uppal, senior policy attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, adding that the language doesn’t limit independent study to only medically vulnerable students.

(Image via iStock/Getty Images Plus)

The requirement to offer independent study for the 2021-22 school year can be waived in districts where it would create an “unreasonable fiscal burden” due to low enrollment. In cases where a program is not available, districts must contract with a county office of education or create a transfer agreement with another school district.

District leaders are now cobbling together new plans and programs for fall.

The SB 130 bill creates new provisions for distance learning and independent study, which could be preferable for a variety of students, including those who are medically vulnerable, too young to get vaccinated, or students with other exceptional circumstances such as traveling athletes.

Independent study programs themselves will have to meet a higher standard this year, too. Those requirements include the following:

  • Curriculum, instructional minutes, and student-to-teacher ratios must be equivalent to what is offered in-person
  • Access to technology and Wi-Fi must be made available for all students
  • Plans to monitor and keep a record of daily participation, which could include online activities, live instruction or completing assignments without teacher supervision
  • Plans to support English learners, students in foster care or other high-needs groups
  • Meals must be available for students in distance learning if they qualify for free or reduced-price lunches
  • Plans to transition students who wish to return to in-person instruction in no less than five instructional days
  • Strategies to re-engage students who are absent for several days
  • Regular communication between caregivers, teachers and students regarding a student’s academic progress
  • For high schools, access to all courses offered for graduation and approved by the University of California or the California State University

“We are pleased that the Legislature listened to families, particularly those in communities of color, who asked for meaningful distance learning options in case it’s still unsafe for their children to return in the fall,” said Victor Leung, director of Education Equity at the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. “The proposal could still use more clarity and stronger protections to ensure that remote instruction is high-quality, particularly in terms of synchronous instruction, but this is a step in the right direction.”

The ACLU and a handful of other education equity groups have been urging the state to come up with stronger protections for students in independent study, which has been criticized for a lack of accountability and functioning as a tool to push students out of the education system.

The experience rings true for high school student Ally Hudson, an incoming junior at California School of the Arts-San Gabriel Valley. After experiencing a mental health crisis her freshman year of high school, Hudson enrolled in independent study for several months before transferring back to regular classes during the 2020-21 school year.

“It didn’t really work for me. The teachers didn’t really do anything, I didn’t really have any support systems there. It was just doing an online curriculum, no virtual teaching, just watching videos. Nobody held me accountable, I was going through a lot mentally, and they didn’t tell me or my parents that I was behind. I thought I was on track. It didn’t work out well and left me scrambling at the end of my freshman year and I ended up barely passing, only because I worked so hard.”

The bill requires some live instruction time for remote students, but an exact number of live minutes was not included. The bill says independent study programs must provide daily live instruction for students in transitional kindergarten to grades 3, opportunities for daily live instruction and at least weekly live instruction for grades 4-8, and weekly synchronous instruction for high school students.

But some advocates say the bill doesn’t go far enough. Historically, independent study has been reserved for individual circumstances. But on the heels of the pandemic, more families now want remote options — and expect higher quality than what’s been available in the past.

“We’re disappointed at the infrequent live interaction for high school students. It doesn’t seem like this will be enough to offer weekly synchronous instruction to students in high school, who research is showing, have experienced trauma,” said Uppal, of the National Center for Youth Law. “We need them to feel connected to school even if they have to choose the remote option for their own health and safety.”

But too strict of monitoring could make scheduling complicated for students who chose independent study for the flexible nature. In the Davis Joint Unified district, some students choose independent study if they are traveling for sports or other activities and can’t make day-to-day live instruction, said Rob Kinder, principal of the Davis School for Independent Study.

Those who want to see independent study reformed for the coming school year point to examples like in Lemoore Union Elementary School District, which in March 2021 was not planning to provide a distance learning option even though many of its students are too young to get vaccinated, and some parents requested alternatives due to health concerns at home.

More than 40 districts with children opting not to return to in-person school are now developing so-called virtual academies to be offered through the state’s independent study statute. The bill applies to all fully remote learning options.

Azusa Unified, a large suburban district east of Los Angeles, has plans to reform its preexisting independent study program so students have more contact with instructors and other students, including providing more chances to participate in in-person events, sports and field trips.

But without any guidance from the state until now, there are still many details to iron out, said Azusa Unified Assistant Superintendent Dayna Mitchell.

“We are in the throes, as we speak, in planning meetings,” said Mitchell, adding that the district is still working to determine live instruction minimums and overall enrollment.

Davis Joint Unified is working on developing a virtual academy for students across all grade spans who want to stay fully online. The program will include opportunities for daily live instruction based on students’ plans and allow for participation in sports or field trips as well as complete small group work with other independent study students.

“Feels like Covid is almost over, but it’s not. The Delta variant is a concern, that’s what I’m hearing from families,” said Kinder of Davis Unified. “Families are really apprehensive and asking a lot of questions, but being very patient. We are planning for all scenarios.”

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