As COVID-19 cases drop in California, Black, Latino and Asian students are less likely to be back on campus compared to their white peers, according to an EdSource analysis.
On Friday, nearly a year after schools initially began closing their physical campuses due to COVID-19, the California Department of Public Health released a much-anticipated statewide map illustrating where and to what extent 990 school districts across California are offering in-person instruction.
Only 4% of California students have fully returned for in-person instruction, according to an EdSource analysis based on the map data.
It is based on information that school districts, charter and private schools are required to submit to the state beginning on Jan. 25. The map will be regularly updated based on new information received.
“As COVID-19 conditions continue to improve and vaccinations ramp up throughout the state, this map will provide local communities with accessible, up-to-date information on how districts in their communities and beyond are adapting to the pandemic, including safety planning and implementation,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday.
The vast majority of students (79%) are still in distance learning. Of the districts that reported that status to the state 19% said they are offering instruction in-person only, 18% are hybrid only, 51% are distance only and 12% are a mixture of the above based on grade level.
Hybrid instruction is when students receive some of their instruction in person and some at with computer-based distance learning.
Across California, many districts have met state requirements to open their elementary schools. Nearly half of all districts with elementary schools have reopened them to fully in-person or hybrid learning. High school students are less likely to be on campus. Only 27% of districts with high schools have reopened them to in-person or hybrid.
But there’s a disparity among which groups of students are able to go into school for teacher-led classes. White students are more likely to have that experience. Nearly 90% of Black students, 85% of Latino students, and 81% of Asian students are still in distance learning, compared with 64% of white students, according to an EdSource analysis of the state’s mapping data. The state map did not include information on the racial background of students. EdSource added the demographic information from the state Department of Education in its analysis.
In addition, schools with high portions of low-income students and English learners are more likely to be closed to in-person classes than schools in affluent areas. About 80% of students on a free and reduced lunch plan and similarly 80% of English learners are attending school in distance learning only.
The racial and economic disparity among distance learning reflects trends in how Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting communities. Across the state, Black, Latino and low-income families, as well as people experiencing homelessness, have some of the highest rates of COVID-19, partly because these groups are often more likely to live in dense housing situations or are unable to work at home.
That has caused some school districts to delay reopening plans as parents and staff have expressed concern about high levels of COVID-19 in the community on top of preexisting safety concerns in schools such as lack of ventilation or even windows in some buildings. Teachers’ unions have also pushed back against reopening unless teachers are vaccinated and other mitigation strategies are in place.
School reopening efforts
The data comes amid increasing pressure from President Joe Biden and Gov. Gavin Newsom to come up with strategies to encourage schools to reopen for in-person instruction. On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a color-coded guide and a detailed 33-page “strategy” to help school districts decide under what conditions they could offer in-person instruction, similar to the color-coded reopening guide that California has in place.
“K-12 schools should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do so safely. Schools should be prioritized for reopening and remaining open for in-person instruction over nonessential businesses and activities,” the guidance reads.
But Newsom’s reopening efforts have run into resistance from numerous directions, and he has yet to forge a consensus on the issue in the state Legislature. Newsom had hoped to come to an agreement with legislators this week, but Friday came and went without an announcement on a timetable and conditions for reopening elementary schools.
Learning loss concerns
Parents and teachers in support of the governor’s push for reopening worry that students are falling behind academically during distance learning, as well as struggling mentally and socially without their usual supports and friends on campus.
Some are especially worried that middle and high school students will be left out of the push is to open schools, which has so far has focused mostly on elementary-age students.
“Locking older children out of the classroom ignores the science and data that shows school closures are impacting kids of every age,” said Ross Novie, a member of Open Schools California, a group of parents who are pushing for a swift and safe reopening of schools. “Schools are an essential public service and should be treated as such — the last institutions to close when cases spike and the first to reopen.”
Elementary-level schools were the first group to be given the green light to reopen last fall if they obtained a waiver from the state.
Clusters of schools that are reopened are most prominent in rural areas, such as northeast California and the Central Valley, as well as wealthier urban and suburban centers in Orange County, Marin and San Diego.
The map was posted about a month after the state launched the Safe Schools for All Hub, which houses information about how schools can safely return to in-person instruction.
Updated CDC guidelines
The updated CDC guidance focuses on five mitigation strategies aimed to protect teachers, staff and students from the coronavirus. The strategies are strict mask-wearing, maintaining 6 feet of social distance, frequent hand-washing, proper ventilation, as well as contact tracing and quarantine protocols.
But across California, reopening schools remains a fraught debate. And whether teachers should be vaccinated before they enter their physical classrooms has become a flashpoint in the discussion. The teachers’ union representing L.A. Unified has said employees should be vaccinated before they return, for example. But in many counties, it has been a struggle for teachers to get the vaccine largely due to lack of supply.
The new CDC guidance leaves decisions around vaccinations and testing up to local control.
“Our leaders need to demonstrate real commitment to getting all kids back in the classroom this school year, not small incremental change that will leave millions of older students behind,” Novie said.
* Story originally published by EdSource.