School districts will be able to bring back to school small groups of students with disabilities and others with “acute” needs for face-to-face instruction, Gov. Gavin Newsom and State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond announced Friday.

The California Department of Public Health will provide details for districts to follow, perhaps this week. All districts will be able to bring small groups of students on campus, including those whose schools cannot currently open because they’re in counties on the state’s watchlist for high rates of coronavirus infection, hospitalizations and other criteria, Darling-Hammond said.

The state will move forward with this policy, Newsom said, out of the “recognition that there are kids that will never” be able to adjust to learning online “no matter what kind of support we provide, even if we individualize it.”

Many special education students have suffered during distance learning: students with autism, learning disabilities and emotional conditions as well as those who normally would receive in-person occupational and physical therapy. But large numbers of homeless and migrant students and students in foster care also have been greatly affected.

Some districts have expressed a desire to open up schools to these students, and a few, including Palo Alto Unified, had planned to move ahead. But teachers unions have rejected those plans during negotiations over their working conditions, saying they expose teachers to unsafe conditions. Discussions ended in mid-August, when Newsom and the California Department of Public Health put most of the state’s counties, encompassing more than 90% of the state’s students, on a monitoring list.

An exception is the Marin County Office of Education, which ran programs in the spring and summer for 375 students in 44 cohorts. Those students were in programs for special education, alternative education and pop-up child care centers. In-school services for students with moderate and severe disabilities will resume Sept. 8, regardless of whether the county remains on the monitoring list.

Darling-Hammond said the forthcoming guidance will elaborate on the conditions already in place for day care centers, which have continued to operate in counties on the list. She said the approvals will apply to small groups of students in cohorts that have no contact with other students and follow safety and monitoring requirements. Districts must work with county offices of education on their plans, she said.

Some districts hope to find space for students who lack access to the internet or have no adult at home to supervise remote learning. San Francisco Unified is working through the San Francisco City and County Department of Children, Youth and Their Families on the arrangements. The guidance may cover these students as well, Darling-Hammond said.

Districts would likely have to negotiate with employee unions any plan to reopen schools with small numbers of students and staff. Newsom acknowledged the pressure teachers and paraprofessionals feel between their commitment to their students and the fears they have for their health.

“The overwhelming majority of you got into education for equity purposes, to right wrongs, to address the issue of social mobility and care deeply about learning disabilities and the special needs that many of your students have,” he said.

“Learning is non-negotiable,” he said, “but neither is safety.”

Also at the press conference Friday (Aug. 14), Newsom said the state has finished updating its backlog of cases that resulted in a data glitch and required the state to freeze the county monitoring list. Of the approximately 295,000 backlogged lab reports, he said there were 20,000 positive COVID-19 test results, which is expected to be added retroactively to county databases by Monday (Aug. 17), when the county monitoring list will be updated. This will allow counties to begin processing elementary school waivers, he said.

Story originally published by EdSource.