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Will California Lawmakers Allow Distance Learning to Continue Next Year?

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A sign in front of Sankofa United Elementary School in North Oakland on March 30, 2021 welcomes students back to the classroom. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

California schools have moved to reopen at a lunch-line pace this year.

Despite billions of dollars funneled from the state Capitol, the share of districts offering full-time, in-person learning ranks among the lowest in the U.S.

But as more districts begin opening their doors, typically in a hybrid format, state lawmakers are turning their focus to next school year as part of the annual state budget process.

And despite declarations from Gov. Gavin Newsom, state legislators, school officials and teachers unions that classroom instruction is the best form of education for most students, many of those involved in budget discussions say the state’s spending plan could once again allow for distance or hybrid learning in the fall.

That possibility is a reflection of the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic may have forever changed the way school is taught in the state. After more than a year of remote instruction, some families have come to prefer that setup for their children.

"What we're hearing very broadly from schools all across the state is that they do want to have some level of flexibility to continue to provide distance learning for some families," said Kevin Gordon, president of Capitol Advisors, a lobbying firm representing hundreds of California school districts.

But any continuation of distance learning in the fall would also be a political risk for Newsom, who has been criticized for the slow pace of California's school reopening and will likely face a recall election toward the end of the year.

And districts acknowledge the need for some limits on distance learning in the state budget, Gordon said, to ensure that the goal of full-time, in-person instruction is not diluted through local deliberations and negotiations with labor unions.

"I think there is a genuine fear and I think a legitimate fear that if the Legislature doesn't have some guardrails on a future distance learning strategy, that there are going to be different kinds of pressure that would water down the effort to get kids back into an in-person instruction approach," he said.

That delicate balance has been elusive during this current school year. In June, Newsom signed a budget bill that authorized distance learning and lowered the requirement for instructional minutes.

As California's coronavirus caseload waxed and waned over the last year, the budget ensured that decisions over whether to open classrooms would ultimately be left to local school boards, who frequently faced competing pressures from parents and teachers unions, often resulting in gridlock.

Despite billions in state incentive grants to reopen classrooms, just 17% of California districts have so far returned to full in-person learning, the 10th-lowest mark among states in the U.S., according to data gathered by the American Enterprise Institute and the College Crisis Initiative of Davidson College earlier this month.

Now, Newsom and legislators must again decide whether to give districts such deference in the state's next spending plan, which the Legislature must pass before June 15 — although pieces of the budget can be adopted later in the summer.

A return to pre-pandemic rules would mean only students approved for independent study or those in non-classroom-based charter schools could enroll in distance learning.

Newsom's press office tweeted this week that the governor did not include an extension of this year's distance learning allowance in his initial 2021-2022 budget proposal unveiled in January.

"It's up to the democratic process to confirm the Gov’s position, in spring budget negotiations w the Leg[islature]," the tweet stated.

But recently, Newsom has only gone so far as to say he expects a return to in-person instruction in the fall.

"Mandates are often not looked upon as favorably as you would like to think," he said earlier this month during a visit to a Santa Rosa elementary school.

And while some Democrats, including state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, have called for an end to distance learning in the fall, others are taking a wait-and-see approach.

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"It’s our goal to take a hard look at the time we do the budget as to what the circumstances are of the pandemic at that point, and decide if there’s tweaks or changes that we want to make," said state Sen. John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, chair of the Senate's budget subcommittee on education.

The state's largest teachers union, the California Teachers Association, is also calling for legislators to preserve the option of distance learning in the budget and leave the final decision to local school districts.

"It has to be a community-based decision where everyone comes together to decide on what's best for them," said E. Toby Boyd, the union's president.

While the recall campaign has made shuttered schools a key part of its attack on Newsom, key Republicans in the state Legislature share the CTA's desire for local control over decisions to reopen in the fall.

"I think ultimately the healthiest way to proceed is to give the school districts the ability to make the choices that best meet the needs of their region or their district," said state Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, R-Yucaipa, the lone Republican on the budget education subcommittee.

"We don't know what the health environment will be in the fall," she added. "I think it's our responsibility to make sure that we have accommodations for families that can't or won't vaccinate."


For parent advocates pushing for a full return to classroom learning, the idea of local decision-making conjures up the prospect of repeating what happened this spring, when prolonged negotiations resulted in something less than a full return to the pre-pandemic school schedule.

Large Bay Area districts such as San Francisco, Oakland and Fremont have opted to pass up millions of dollars in state funding by not returning all elementary and some older students to class, a requirement of the incentive bill.

"If the state allows so much flexibility that it’s really up to the districts, then we’re going to see this huge variation with what children are actually able to access in terms of high-quality, in-person instruction," said Meredith Willa Dodson, co-founder of Decreasing the Distance, a school reopening advocacy group in San Francisco created during the pandemic.

Dodson said her group is scrambling to shift its lobbying efforts to the state Capitol before budget negotiations move into high gear after Newsom releases his revised budget in May.

“Since we’ve been around, we haven’t even approached thinking about state advocacy until the last few weeks," she said.


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