SACRAMENTO — California’s two largest school districts announced Monday they will start the upcoming school year with full distance learning, potentially giving momentum to other districts as the state grapples with a surge in coronavirus cases.
Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified, which collectively enroll more than 700,000 students, issued a joint announcement that students will resume classes next month online with hopes of returning to physical classrooms sometime this school year “as soon as public health conditions allow.”
The decision defies growing pressure from President Donald Trump and his administration to reopen campuses when the school year begins.
As the nation’s second largest school district, the move by Los Angeles Unified could have ripple effects throughout the state and nation. Shortly after the Monday announcement, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said on Twitter: “As a public health leader and grandfather, I believe that having schools closed due to #COVID19 is a greater public health threat to children than having the schools reopen. I am confident we can open schools safely in partnership with local jurisdictions.”
But teachers have ramped up their opposition to campuses reopening in the fall, with the California Teachers Association saying last week that schools are not safe to open, citing a resurgence in cases and a need for more personal protective equipment and other supplies.
Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics softened its earlier stance that schools should prioritize in-person learning because students would suffer other ill effects by continued campus closures. The AAP on Friday called on public health agencies to be in charge of those decisions.
“Unfortunately, much of the research is incomplete and many of the guidelines are vague and contradictory. One fact is clear: Those countries that have managed to safely reopen schools have done so with declining infection rates and on-demand testing available. California has neither,” Los Angeles and San Diego district leaders said in a statement. “The skyrocketing infection rates of the past few weeks make it clear the pandemic is not under control.”
School-year planning in California has been thrown for a loop. After it appeared in May that the state had gained control of Covid-19 spread, infections and hospitalizations have spiked to levels unseen this year. That has changed calculations for administrators, teachers and parents heading into the fall, and many are discouraging a resumption of in-person classes.
But some parents and pediatricians say distance learning cannot replace in-person classes on a number of levels, from academic to social, and that children will suffer more ill effects from staying home than from the risks of exposure at school.
The California Department of Education and the California Department of Public Health have offered a slew of recommendations for how schools should reopen in the face of the pandemic, but Gov. Gavin Newsom is leaving those decisions up to districts in a state that has long emphasized local control of education.
The California Federation of Teachers joined the California Teachers Association on Monday in calling for distance learning to continue statewide, demanding a list of requirements that schools should meet before they can reopen. Those include regular state-provided Covid-19 testing for students and staff and prohibiting in-person instruction at schools until the number of new coronavirus cases in their respective counties declines for at least 14 consecutive days.
In a letter to Newsom, CFT President Jeff Freitas criticized the state for a lack of clear school reopening requirements, saying there’s been “guidance, but no definitive clarity.”
“Current guidelines have been helpful, but the world has changed and the situation in California has gotten worse since these guidelines were written,” Freitas said in the letter. “Today, every school district is creating a different plan with different standards, and with different resources, which will allow the virus to pass through weak links in the chain.”
Newsom applauded the L.A. and San Diego schools decision on Monday but stood by his local control approach. He explained that his administration will issue clearer state guidance this week and that the state “will be leaning in even further.” That guidance will include information related to masks, busing and contact sports, Newsom said.
The state has “highly encouraged” facial coverings for K-12 students, but unlike other states, has not mandated student use.
The governor also warned of the digital divide, as many students across the state still lack access to computers and internet.
“Two things are non-negotiable: our children’s health and the absolutely essential importance of educating our children,” Newsom said Monday. “To me it’s an ‘and,’ not an ‘or.’”