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A young girl does schoolwork in front of a computer
 (Julia M Cameron/Pexels)

California Schools Reopening Plan: What We Know (and Don't) Right Now

California Schools Reopening Plan: What We Know (and Don't) Right Now

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Ever since schools closed their doors in the spring to stop the spread of the coronavirus, parents and educators have been worried about what the fall would bring, and what California's plan for reopening schools might look like.

For a brief few weeks, it seemed that the rate of new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations was stabilizing in California — and that schools might reopen with new safety precautions in place. But Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced that with the number of new cases and hospitalizations spiking around the state, the majority of public and private schools will start the school year remotely.

The most recent guidance states that schools located in counties on the state’s watch list for rising cases of the coronavirus cannot hold in person classes. Only once the county has been off that list for 14 days can schools consider reopening if they follow strict guidelines laid out by the state. Currently all Bay Area counties — except San Mateo — are on the state’s watch list.

What kind of interaction between kids and schools can we expect?

The state will require schools to offer daily live interaction with every student — but the details of what that looks like are still vague. It could include synchronous online video lessons, but might also include calls or texts. Teachers will be required to take attendance, and the state is scrambling to close a digital divide that has made it difficult for many California students to access online learning.

"Without that expectation that every student is going to have an interaction with someone at their school site, we are worried we’ll see what we saw in the spring, which was students lost completely," said Sarah Lillis, executive director of the nonprofit Teach Plus.

And, true to many aspects of the coronavirus pandemic, that loss of instructional time was deeply inequitable. Low-income students — along with English language learners and kids with special needs — were disproportionately missing from online classes in the spring; a time Lillis labeled "crisis schooling."

What about elementary schools?

District superintendents can apply for state waivers that would allow elementary schools to open, but those will be issued on a case-by-case basis, taking into account local conditions and in consultation with public health experts and the California Department of Public Health.

A mom and her son look fed up with learning at home.
Many parents aren't sure how they're going to make distance learning this fall work. (iStock/JackF)

Many parents of elementary school-aged children have struggled to work from home while guiding their young children’s education. It isn’t developmentally appropriate for little kids to sit in front of the computer all day, but parents are also concerned that they aren’t trained to be their children’s teachers.

What's being done locally?

"We don’t have an optimal learning situation right now," said Oakland Unified’s COVID-19 taskforce leader Sailaja Suresh on KQED Forum.

Further Reading

She said she understands how frustrating this situation is for everyone. However, she’s hopeful that when Oakland students start school in the fall it will be more orderly than it was last spring, when teachers were flung into remote teaching situations for which they weren’t prepared.

Oakland has convened a group of 100 stakeholders since the spring to think through various scenarios. That group helped Suresh identify priority groups who have the most difficulty learning remotely. Those include students with special education needs, English language learners, homeless students and those without access to technology. Suresh says Oakland is focusing on ideas to bring those groups back to school buildings first, when it is safe.

However, she stressed that most districts are currently in negotiations with teachers’ unions and the outcome will determine what is possible in the coming year. Additionally, as public health data continues to shift, district leaders’ primary concern is everyone’s safety.


What kind of help will parents get?

For many parents, vague guidance from the state and little-to-no help with handling the practicalities of keeping kids at home has been incredibly stressful.

"When I go to work I have to leave my home," said a caller on Forum. "What is the support for parents who can’t stay home and do distance learning?"

On this point, there are no easy answers. But districts are thinking through how they can collaborate more with parents, Suresh said.

Oakland hopes to start training its teachers in online learning best practices earlier than usual, and include ideas for how teachers can support parents. Suresh also mentioned making online resources available to parents, and coaching them in how to use other community resources, like public access television, to aid their children’s learning.

"It will require a much tighter collaboration around the public health aspects, but also the instruction aspects," Suresh said.

Teachers are scrambling too. Many have spent their summers trying to learn effective ways to teach online after struggling through the spring with little training. Still others worry that a variety of barriers — like incorrect phone numbers and a lack of strong internet — will prevent them from getting in touch with every student on a daily basis.

Are there any creative solutions out there already?

Some parents and caregivers are putting together informal education pods to both give students social stimulation and lessen the burden of learning at home. The idea is for parents to pool resources to either hire a tutor for a small group of students, or rotate teaching the group, in a homeschooling model. This won’t be a solution for all families, however, and is likely to exacerbate the already deep equity divides that exist in education.

One Forum caller, a long time teacher herself, suggested that this crisis might be an opportunity to upend an education system that hasn’t been working for a long time. She ran independent study programs as a teacher, and suggested that could be a model for teachers in a distance environment.

The lack of clarity around California school reopening has many families wondering exactly how it's going to work (Julia M Cameron/Pexels)

"I think it’s time we think outside the traditional school box," said the caller. She suggested that now is the time to be radical, even considering a democratic school model like Summerhill School in the UK or Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond is expected to clarify and flesh out the Governor’s plan with districts this week. While many are thankful for a more unified approach and guidance, the many unknowns have everyone wondering exactly how it’s all going to work.

Want more updates on schooling during the pandemic? Follow our  education coverage, and subscribe to the Mindshift newsletter


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