California school districts are showing a clear momentum toward reopening for some version of in-person instruction.
That’s according to an EdSource survey of the 58 county offices of education. In the nation’s largest school system, the survey shows that children are learning through a patchwork of instructional strategies that continue to be shaped in profound ways by the coronavirus pandemic.
- In 21 of the state’s 58 counties, all school districts are either currently offering some form of in-person instruction for students, or are planning to do so within days or weeks. In almost all cases, parents and students have the option of continuing to receive instruction remotely from their homes.
- Nearly all of these counties are in largely rural areas in Central and Northern California, with Orange County and San Diego County the most significant exceptions. With nearly 500,000 students, Orange County is the site of the biggest launch of in-person instruction. All but two of the county’s 27 districts are either currently offering some form of in-person instruction to some or all of their students, or plan to do so soon.
- In 17 counties, all or most districts are sticking to teaching students principally via distance learning. Of these districts, many are shooting to bring students back to school in January, or at least leaving open that possibility.
- In the remaining 20 counties, there is a mixture of instructional approaches depending on the district, with some teaching students remotely, and others providing face-to-face instruction.
In addition, as a result of guidance issued by the state in August, many schools throughout the state have been offering in-person classes or other support services on school campuses for small groups of special education students and others with special needs like foster or homeless students.
Although it is ultimately up to districts to decide on their own what to do, the state appears to be nudging schools to offer in-person instruction, not just for students with special needs but for students attending regular classes as well.
“Schools should absolutely reopen,” said Dr. Erica Pan, the acting state health officer at a hearing in Sacramento on Oct. 27 of the education subcommittee of the Assembly Budget Committee. She suggested that they do so gradually, starting with the youngest children who are the least likely to carry the virus, or to become seriously ill from it. What must be balanced, she said, is the risk of transmission of the COVID-19 disease with learning loss that may result from students learning at home.
Pan said that only two school-related outbreaks of the disease have been reported to state health authorities, with a total of 17 positive cases. “That has been very encouraging given the number of schools that have already started to reopen,” she said, without giving any details of the schools or cases.
Although there is no exact tally, the survey suggests that by far the majority of students are still getting instruction via distance learning. Over 3.6 million children are in schools in counties that are still principally in distance learning mode. An additional 1.7 million are in “mixed” counties where school districts are offering instruction principally in-person or via distance learning. The counties where all or most districts are offering in-person instruction, or plan to do so soon, have enrollments of 737,000. But not all of those children are taking in-person classes, either because their districts are not offering in-person classes in their grades, or parents have opted for their children to continue to study from home.
But accelerating the pace of returning to school is raising deep concerns among some lawmakers who worry that districts may no have the ability or resources to test students and staff for the virus — or to do contact tracing and adequately follow other health guidelines.
Assemblyman McCarty: ‘It could go wrong really fast’
As larger districts start to open, said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, chair of the subcommittee at Tuesday’s hearing, “it could go wrong really fast. We need to make sure we don’t have an ‘oops’ six months down the road. We have to make sure we are ready.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond confirmed the school reopening trend. “The trend we are seeing is that more schools in California are moving toward opening,” said Thurmond on the “Schools on the Front Lines” podcast, hosted by Carl Cohn.
Many of the state’s largest districts, which are mostly in urban areas, are sticking with distance learning for now. Of the state’s 30 largest districts, Capistrano Unified in Orange County has been open for in-person instruction for weeks, while neighboring Garden Grove Unified began opening some schools this week, and Santa Ana will do so for elementary grades over the next several weeks.
Many districts are only offering in-person instruction to elementary students, and phasing in instruction to middle or high school students. In some cases, high school students continue to receive most or all of their classes via distance learning.
The return to school for in-person instruction has been made possible because of improved conditions related to the pandemic in California, although positive cases have been ticking up in recent days. Under a color-coded monitoring system announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom in August, districts are allowed to offer in-person instruction for regular classes only once conditions in their counties have improved, and the county is no longer on the “purple” Tier One list.
When schools opened in August, 48 out of 58 counties were on that list. That meant that 5.3 million, or 87%, of California’s students, attended schools prohibited from opening for in person instruction.
Things have changed dramatically since then.
Schools in only nine counties are still on the list with the dreaded color purple. Under state guidelines, that means that districts serving 42%, or 2.5 million, of the state’s public school students are still required to offer instruction via distance learning.
Thus, California has gone from barring almost all its students from attending school in person at the beginning of the school year to allowing the majority of them to benefit from face-to-face instruction just two months later.
As a result, many school administrators are coming under more pressure to offer face-to-face instruction from parents seeking relief from the distance learning regimen that began last March.
A mixed bag for students
According to the EdSource survey, most districts offering in-person instruction are doing so in a hybrid or blended format. That means students come to school for direct instruction for some part of the school week, and study via distance learning the rest of the week.
Only a handful are bringing students back to school for five days a week.
One of them is the Black Oak Mine District in El Dorado County, with 1300 students, situated in the Sierra foothills northeast of Sacramento. For the past month, students have come to school each day on a modified schedule, attending classes until noon, and then doing homework in the afternoon.
Superintendent Jeremy Meyers said his district has been able to bring students back because of the low number of positive COVID-19 cases in the county, as well as strict rules requiring masks and other health and safety precautions. He said that the “transition to face-to-face instruction was an incredible amount of work,” but once it was set up, it “has been going as well as we could have hoped.”
State guidelines allow schools to exempt the youngest children from wearing masks. But at Black Oak Mine all children wear masks, beginning with 4-year-olds in transitional kindergarten. Remarkably, he said, children have gotten used to the masks, and enforcement has not been a problem. “The messaging to students and parents included the imperative of wearing masks in exchange for our reopening — and our ability to remain open,” he said.
And what form of instruction does he prefer? “Face-to-face is what we are good at,” he said.
On a far larger scale, Capistrano Unified in Orange County is offering classes five days a week for as many as 13,000 of its 17,000 elementary school students. Students attend classes during the morning, and then in the afternoon get tutoring under large tents erected in the school yards or playing fields.
San Diego County is another county where large numbers of students have returned to campus. As of this week, 33 of the county’s 42 districts are offering some form of in-person instruction to up to 86,000 students in regular schools, and about 10,000 more in charter schools.
But notably, the county’s largest district, San Diego Unified, with 122,000 students, is sticking mainly to distance learning. It announced this week that it would not bring elementary students back until Jan. 4 and middle or high schools students until Jan. 25 — at earliest.
Health, safety concerns
There are multiple reasons most of the largest districts are holding back. They may not have the financial or other resources to meet health and safety requirements, or the classroom space to allow for social distancing. They also are more likely to have stronger teachers’ unions that have been especially vocal in raising concerns about school safety during the pandemic. Districts themselves may have imposed stricter requirements than the state for reopening.
In all cases, school administrators, with the backing of their teachers, have simply decided that it is not safe to have children and staff return in significant numbers, and are not willing to take the risk of doing so.
But state health officer Pan says that opening schools safely is possible. “There are examples of successful school openings around the country and the world when you follow the key principles of distancing, face coverings, maintaining (small student) cohorts and good ventilation.”
The challenge is that those seemingly simple directives can be too difficult to implement, depending on the district. There are also growing concerns that school reopenings are happening too often in more affluent schools or private ones.
State Superintendent Thurmond worries that “social isolation has created very difficult conditions for our students,” and that will contribute to the push to bring students back to school. At the same time, he said, “we have to put safety first and foremost.”