Newsom Proposes a Return to In-Person Learning Beginning Next School Year

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Gavin Newsom visits Manzanita Community Elementary School in Oakland on Mar. 2, 2020.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

After more than a year of allowing school districts to shutter classrooms because of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday proposed to end distance learning in the 2021-2022 school year — but also suggested the state continue to give students the option to learn at home through more traditional independent study programs.

"We want kids back in-person this fall, full time," Newsom said as he presented his revised budget proposal in Sacramento.

For months, Newsom has implored schools to return to in-person instruction, even sending districts billions of dollars to do so. But many have resisted, and the Republican candidates hoping to unseat Newsom in this year's recall election have paraded the state's low rates of traditional instruction. The governor, having granted districts authority for distance learning in last year's state budget, was left at the mercy of local reopening deliberations.

Now, Newsom said he does not want to repeat the distance learning allowance in the state's next spending plan, and instead wants a return to a default of in-person instruction.

"On June 30, midnight, the statute in the state of California will make that crystal clear that that is indeed a requirement," he said.

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Still, the governor acknowledged that many parents would not wholeheartedly embrace a return to class for their children, either because of health concerns, or because they have come to prefer distance learning. 

He wants to assuage concerns by spending $2 billion on improving school building ventilation and coronavirus testing. And he is proposing to reform the state's traditional remote learning option, called independent study, in anticipation of heightened interest.

"We recognize we got a lot more work still to do to deal with anxiety, not just with teachers but with parents, about our ability to safely bring back kids into full-time in-person instruction," Newsom said.

Newsom's announcement was celebrated by parent groups who have advocated for a full return to in-person instruction. Those groups have argued that allowing school districts the flexibility to offer distance learning has led to predominately remote or hybrid instruction in districts like Fremont, Oakland and San Francisco, with disastrous impacts on learning and mental health.

"This is not a done deal and the devil’s in the final details, but this is a good sign," tweeted Decreasing the Distance, a San Francisco-based group advocating for re-opening.

The governor's proposal would revert the state's school guidelines to their pre-pandemic norm, in which school funding is determined by in-person attendance.

And the hybrid instruction in which some teachers or students are not physically in the classroom (sometimes called "Zoom in a Room") will not be accepted as in-person instruction.

Instead, school districts will be allowed (but not required) to offer an independent study option for families who want to stick with distance learning.

"It seems like the governor is pointing toward a fair compromise which should prioritize full-time in-person instruction for all families who want it, while still leaving open existing options for school districts to provide some form of online learning and virtual academies for those families who feel it works better for their situation," said Troy Flint, spokesman for the California School Boards Association.

Independent study was first authorized in 1976 as an alternative for students with unique circumstances, such as child actors or athletes, who were unable to make it into class every day. It remains a limited program; in 2015, just 2% of students received a majority of their instruction through independent study, according to the state Department of Education.

In anticipation of higher interest in independent study next year, the Newsom administration is proposing more guardrails on the program, requiring districts to provide internet connectivity to students and track their daily interaction with teachers.

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"We're talking about a well-developed, comprehensive program  that does have direct teacher interaction and is designed from the ground-up to work virtually, not something that is ported over from in-person instruction to deal with this crisis situation," Flint said.

Currently, some districts make a determination on each student's application to participate in independent study. The Newsom administration is expected to include language in budget trailer bills giving guidance to districts on how to deal with higher demand for the program.

School boards, teacher unions and a bipartisan group of legislators called on the governor to maintain a distance learning option in the budget. They say some parents will take their kids out of public schools if they lack a robust distance learning alternative.

"This is a matter of equity," said California Teachers Association spokeswoman Lisa Gardiner, in a statement. "We know some families from underserved communities who have been devastated by COVID may not be ready to send their children back to school, and we need options for those students who are medically fragile."

While critics of Newsom have hoped to make school closures an issue in the recall election, very little daylight exists between the governor's position and those of his leading opponents.

When asked whether districts should offer a distance learning option in the fall, former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer told KQED "I think for some folks who may need that, absolutely. But our schools need to be open for kids to be in class fully."