State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond during a staff interview at EdSource. (Photo by Andrew Reed/EdSource)

Affirming a prediction that Gov. Gavin Newsom made exactly two weeks ago, California’s schools chief Tony Thurmond is recommending that the state’s public schools plan to provide distance learning to students through the end of their school year.

“Due to the current safety concerns and needs for ongoing social distancing, it appears that our students will not be able to return to school campuses before the end of the school year,” Thurmond wrote in a letter sent to the state’s 58 county superintendents of schools on Tuesday morning.

Thurmond, who is the elected state superintendent of public education and has been in office for just over a year, stressed that health concerns are paramount in determining when schools should reopen. “The need for safety through social distancing warrants that we continue to keep our school campuses closed to students during this pandemic,” he said.

However, he emphasized that while school campuses may be closed, schools are not.

“This is in no way to suggest that school is over for the year, but rather we should put all efforts into strengthening our delivery of education through distance learning,” he said. He said the California Department of Education was ready to assist school districts to do so. In an interview, Thurmond said his department, for example, has surveyed districts throughout the state on how many students don’t have internet access or devices at home, and is trying to match up the needs of individual districts with offers from the philanthropic sector to meet those needs.

Thurmond stressed that his recommendation was not a directive, and that it was ultimately up to local school districts or health departments to decide whether school campuses should remain open or closed.

His letter was a response to pleas from several county superintendents of schools for the state to set a uniform closure date, to put an end to some of the confusion that has resulted from districts around the state that have announced a range of closure dates. Over the past week, many more districts had extended their closure dates to at least May 1. “They want the ability to have stability and to be able to plan for the rest of the school year, and they are asking me for some signal about how to prepare for that,” he said.

Unlike in seven other states where governor’s have ordered statewide closings for the remainder of the school year, Newsom has refrained from doing so, in deference to the principle of local control of schools which is entrenched in state law. He has also said he thinks they will not open before the school year ends, as recently as Tuesday, when he said in his daily press briefing, he said “I have been clear,” he said. “I believe they will not.”

Based on EdSource tracking, one school district — Elk Grove Unified near Sacramento — had already announced that it would replace regular instruction with distance learning until the end of its school year on May 29. Thurmond’s guidance makes it far more likely that more school districts will extend their current closures closure for a month or longer, depending on when their regularly scheduled instructional calendar is due to end.

But in the hours after receiving Thurmond’s letter, district and county superintendents were still digesting its content, and no announcements of additional closings have been made.

Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Karen Monroe, for example, says she has no plans to recommend extending the closure date of May 1 that her county set just last week, along with five other Bay Area counties, serving over 800,000 students. “We are still committed to the process we originally decided on,” she said. As for the prospect of moving the date for campus closures until the end of the school year, “that is something we would want to weigh carefully.”

L.A. County Superintendent Debra Duardo, whose county encompasses 80 districts serving 1.4 million students, also said that “at this point” the county would stick to stick with its current plan, which is to remain closed until May 4, with students returning on May 5. “We will be conferring with districts and local and state partners to determine the best decision for our students, staff, families and communities moving forward,” she said.

Thurmond emphasized that in his view schools are not actually closed, a message he has been putting out since the coronavirus epidemic forced the end of classroom instruction in many of California’s schools beginning on March 13. Within a week, over 6 million children and hundreds of thousands of teachers and school employees were off their campuses and “sheltering in place” in their homes.

At the same time, Thurmond did not exclude the possibility of school campuses reopening earlier. “We would all be happy if we got a signal that it was safe to return to campus,” he said. “But everything I have heard indicates that we still have a lot of work to do around social distancing, and we don’t have any signal that that will change any time soon. But if it did change at any time, that would be welcome news.”

Thurmond acknowledged the pain that all of this is causing. “I am a parent too, and this is difficult for all of us,” he said. ”This is just a statement that out of an abundance of caution that until we get a signal that it is safe for our kids to return to school, that rather than be in limbo about how they will be educated, this year is not over. This letter says we still have the opportunity to make the most of this year, and we don’t have a lot of time do that.”

Referring to Thurmond’s letter, Alameda County’s Monroe said, “we are grateful for the push and acknowledgment that distance learning will take our entire focus to make it work well.” But she would also point out to district superintendents in her county that Thurmond’s letter “does not say ‘thou shalt close schools.’”

Story originally published by EdSource.