Dissatisfied with the uneven quality of distance learning among school districts after they closed in March, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature established minimum requirements for the next school year in legislation accompanying the 2020-21 budget.

For many districts, the school year will begin next month. With COVID-19 infection rates and deaths rising, some districts, including the state’s largest, announced this week they’ll open solely with remote learning or hybrid instruction, with some in-person and some remote teaching.

The minimum requirements include ensuring every student is equipped with a computer and internet access, taking daily attendance and interacting with students in some form every day. Proponents of the standards say they’re pleased the Legislature acted but haven’t given up lobbying for additional requirements, particularly more extensive online teaching.

“Live instruction is an important equity issue. We want to know how districts plan to monitor it, so that it’s not simply a daily roll call with links to Khan Academy,” said Samantha Tran, senior managing director of education policy at Children Now, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

To make sure that districts follow through with the requirements, legislators are conditioning state funding on compliance. And they’re requiring that districts explain how they will implement distance learning in a new report they must write, present at two public hearings and adopt by Sept. 30. Districts are also required to reach out to parents to ask, among other issues, what distance learning should look like.

The Legislature is calling it the Learning Continuity and Attendance Plan. If that sounds familiar, its acronym is the same as the Local Control and Accountability Plan, the annual document that districts write, detailing academic priorities and how they will spend extra money they get for English learners, low-income students, foster and homeless youth. The Legislature suspended that LCAP this year because the pandemic has been so disruptive and replaced it with the learning continuity plan.

On July 14, the California Department of Education presented draft language of the requirements. In its format and requirements for public participation, the seven-page LCAP “template” resembles the yearly LCAP — only shorter. Each district and charter school must hold two public hearings on the plan before adopting it.

Elements of the plan include:

  • Actions and spending, once in-person instruction resumes, to help students who have experienced significant learning loss due to school closures. Districts must specifically address the needs of English learners, low-income students, foster youth, special education students and homeless students. They must also say how they’ll measure the effectiveness of what they are doing. (Gov. Gavin Newsom has provided $4.5 billion from the federal CARES Act to address student learning loss. The money must be spent by Dec. 31.)
  • Efforts to monitor and support students’ mental health and social and emotional well-being to address the effects of the pandemic.
  • Strategies for connecting with parents in multiple languages of students who are now engaging in distance learning. Under the new state law, this effort must kick in when students fail to participate online for three or more days in a week.
  • Efforts to continue providing free and reduced-price meals for eligible students, which districts began in March.
  • A plan for distance learning that will “ensure pupils have access to a full curriculum of substantially similar quality regardless of the method of delivery.” It will include:
    • A description of how connectivity and a computing device will be provided to all students. Some districts have provided technical assistance to families, although that’s not required in the plan.
    • How staff will receive training, resources and technical support.
    • Extra academic support for those who have had the most difficulty adjusting to distance learning, including English learners, special education and homeless students.

Call for more live instruction

The Equity Coalition, a coalition of civil rights organizations and student advocacy nonprofits, including Children Now, had called for distance learning standards, arguing that the disparities in quality had disadvantaged low-income Black and Latino students compared with their higher-income peers. A survey of Los Angeles Unified parents that it cited, conducted by the nonprofit group Speak Up, found that those students last spring were much less likely to receive daily online instruction and have daily contact with teachers. Some parents complained they never heard from some teachers.

The Legislature did include some of what the coalition suggested. But it declined to act on one area they pressed hard for: requiring teachers to do at least three hours of online instruction daily in most grades. Lawmakers included live teaching, known as synchronous instruction, as one of several options, along with uploading videos and lesson instructions. Their statute requires only daily “interaction.”

The phrasing of a question in the draft plan does suggest, however, that online instruction should be used. It asks charter schools and districts to describe how they “will assess pupil progress through live contacts and synchronous instructional minutes.” Several districts administrators at the webinar indicated they don’t know how to assess online progress and would appreciate guidance from the state.

The coalition also called for giving county education offices and the California Department of Education the authority to monitor remote learning and intervene when districts’ efforts are “egregiously” bad. But the Legislature is requiring only that county offices review, not approve or disapprove, the continuity of learning plans. County offices can make recommendations, and districts will have to respond to the suggestions.

As they do with the yearly LCAP, districts and charter schools must seek extensive public feedback, and explain how the public’s suggestions influenced their plans. They should reach out not only to parents, students and teachers but to those who may not have internet connections, the draft says.

Even though districts will work on a “compressed” timeline, “it is important that the engagement be authentic and not just a rubber stamp to get the plan out the door,” said Shereen Walter, director of legislation for the California State PTA.

After all, as one parent wrote recently in a comment to EdSource, “parents — who were the de facto ‘co-educators’ during ‘crisis learning’ in the spring — and their children know what worked or didn’t and are therefore well-positioned to offer advice on best practices.”

Story originally published by EdSource.