Remote learning here to stay, via independent study

Mario Ramirez Garcia, 10, does a spelling activity during distance learning in the bedroom he shares with his sister on April 23, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Distance learning is dead. Long live distance learning — or something like it.

Last week, a waiver allowing California schools to engage in distance learning expired — putting the state on track to resume full-time in-person instruction in the fall. But on Monday, state lawmakers introduced an amended budget bill that would require schools to offer independent study programs for students who don’t yet feel comfortable returning to the classroom.

The bill, which lawmakers could send to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk as early as Thursday, would beef up the state’s existing independent study program by setting higher curriculum and teacher credentialing standards, requiring at least some live instruction and mandating that schools offer devices and internet connections to students who need them. But some advocates doubt the proposal will achieve its goal of offering an educational experience equal to in-person learning.

The challenges of remote learning were made clear by a bill Newsom signed into law Thursday, which allows students to make up for pandemic learning loss by repeating a grade level, switching low marks to pass/no pass or taking a fifth year of high school. But even as the governor and lawmakers vowed an end to distance learning and said 99% of schools would reopen full-time in the fall, they shied away from a mandate, noting that many communities hard-hit by the virus are reluctant to send their kids back to campus. Those anxieties have likely grown as the highly contagious Delta variant becomes the dominant COVID-19 strain in California and coronavirus case rates tick back up.

Even without the independent study option, California’s schools would likely have been emptier than usual in the fall. Public school enrollment hit a 20-year low amid the pandemic as more than 160,000 students exited the system, while the number of families filing an affidavit to open a private home school skyrocketed. Those trends could pose serious financial challenges for California’s public school system, even as it prepares to rake in record funding this year.

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