Across California, public school officials are dumping their carefully crafted plans for the school year — many of which included a hybrid of in-person and online learning — instead opting to keep classes completely remote as coronavirus cases continue to climb.
“It was a difficult decision,” said Richard Whitmore, superintendent of Lafayette School District in Contra Costa County. “We’re now pivoting [completely] to distance learning, so we’re in a real sprint to the start of the school year to make sure we have something that’s going to work for every student.”
Whitmore meets with county health officials once a week, but says without guidance from state or federal officials, they are struggling to pinpoint when it’s safe — or unsafe — to have kids back in classrooms.
“I think [county health officials] believe there’s an obligation of the state to step in and define for us statewide what those numbers should look like — if it’s percent positivity or whatever it may be — that guides us going forward,” he said.
It’s something many districts are struggling with. While the state Education Department has already put out guidelines for in-person learning that include physical distancing, face coverings and other measures, school officials say they need specific metrics about community spread and other data to help decide when it will finally be safe to bring students back.
Barring that guidance, a flood of school districts — including four of the five largest in California — announced this week they will continue remote learning for the beginning of the academic year. Others are delaying the decision in hopes the virus will slow its spread in the handful of weeks before school begins.
As it stands now, at least one million children will not return to their classrooms this fall, including more than 249,000 in Sacramento County, where all 13 school districts agreed Wednesday to begin the school year remotely.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond says he supports local districts’ decisions to remain closed, given the growing threat of COVID-19 in many areas across the state.
“If schools had to open tomorrow, I don’t think most of our districts are in a place where things would be safe enough to do so,” he said.
At a virtual town hall hosted by a state lawmaker Thursday, Thurmond acknowledged the bind local officials like Whitmore have found themselves in: trying to make decisions without knowing what to actually base those decisions on.
“We do need to provide more clarity from the state,” he said. “There’s no question of that.”
Thurmond said the California Department of Public Health has been working “around the clock” on new safety guidance for schools, which Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to unveil Friday.
Still, the superintendent continues to hold out hope that some schools will be able to safely welcome students back.
“There are a few counties that find themselves with very, very low rates of COVID infections, and they have space” for students to maintain distance — a luxury not every school has, Thurmond said.
Teacher unions have repeatedly called for schools to stay closed until conditions improve. In a letter to Newsom and legislative leaders this week, the California Federation of Teachers called for comprehensive action “reminiscent of a war effort” to ensure schools can safely reopen.
“California’s children are mandated by law to attend our schools and we insist these sites be safe for them,” the letter reads. “California should not be in a rush to return to in-person instruction when lives are on the line.”
Federal officials have been pushing to reopen schools this fall, even as many report record coronavirus numbers. On Wednesday, California marked a new high of more than 11,000 new confirmed cases.
President Trump wants schools to open “in full: Kids being able to attend each and every day at their school. The science should not stand in the way of this,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said at a briefing Thursday.
According to CDPH numbers, just under 30,000 of the state’s cumulative coronavirus cases are kids under the age of 18, though zero deaths for that age group have been reported.
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