California schools may not reopen this school year

The state’s public schools are likely to be closed for the remainder of the school year in response to the escalating coronavirus pandemic, a disruption that would affect the education of 6.1 million students and their families, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday.

“Don’t anticipate schools are going to open up in a week. Please don’t anticipate in a few weeks,” Newsom said Tuesday during an afternoon update on the state’s coronavirus efforts. “I would plan, and assume, that it’s unlikely that many of these schools — few, if any — will open before the summer break.”

The sober school news came as larger swaths of California faced even greater restrictions on movement. Orange County issued an order restricting all public gatherings, closing bars that don’t serve food and limiting restaurants to takeout service.

Millions more across the state, including those in Palm Springs and Sacramento, were ordered to shelter in place, similar to the rules imposed Monday across the Bay Area.

The virus has now claimed 13 lives in California. Two new deaths were reported Tuesday — one in the Coachella Valley in Riverside County and a man in his 50s in Santa Clara County who was hospitalized on March 9.

L.A. County announced it had 147 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, up 53 from Monday. All told, more than 470 people across California have tested positive for the virus.

California schools are all but shut down — a hardship for children and families in a state where 60% of students quality for free or reduced price meals because they are members of low-income households. In Los Angeles public schools the number is even higher, at 80%; in Compton it’s at 83%; Pomona, 89%.

Nationwide, well over half the states in the country have closed their public schools or ordered them to close in the coming days.

The K-12 school closures come on top of widespread actions by private colleges and state universities — including most of the University of California, to cancel in-person classes and move to online learning.

Disease control experts say aggressive measures to “flatten the curve” and curb the rapid spread of the new coronavirus are likely to take at least eight weeks — which would extend school closures almost to the end of the academic year.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said Tuesday night that Newsom’s comment offers an assessment of the future school year with closed campuses, but as of now “there is no declaration that school is over for the year.” He said school districts need to be fully prepared to shift their method of instruction.

He added that officials have not yet discussed the potential option of extending the school year into the summer.

“We’re not going to know exactly what we need to do until we have a sense of how this is all going to go,” Thurmond said.

On Wednesday, Thurmond will lead a statewide call for school district leaders to examine the state’s new guidelines on how to operate, including online learning and meal distribution.

Newsom acknowledged the challenging road ahead and said that standardized testing will not take place this spring. “We think it is totally inappropriate for kids to worry” about being tested, he said. Teachers and students “already have enough anxiety.”

Newsom could cancel the testing through an executive order, state officials told The Times.

He felt the need to tell everyone what he’s been saying to his own children. “I don’t want to mislead you,” he said. One of his daughters was missing her school friends on Monday night, and he had to break it to her:

“‘Honey, I don’t think the schools are going to open again.’ And if I could tell my daughter that, and not tell your daughter that, or the people, then I’m not being honest or true to the people of the state of California.”

Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the state board of education, put the disruption in perspective.

“We haven’t had this kind of shutdown of civil society or schools since the Spanish Influenza in 1918,” she said. “It’s been a century since we saw anything like this. And in that case as well, whole cities had to close down. So the magnitude is enormous.”

She said this moment calls for families and communities to reflect on what they need and care about most.

“School is one thing, but they’re going to be people losing their jobs,” she said. “People who need to be able to pay rent, people that need to be able to eat, and we have to be able to take care of that as well.”

All hands in state government and the private sector, she said, “are stepping up to assist or provide guidance” to schools districts, she said. The private sector has been assisting, with broadband access for low-income families, for example.

She acknowledged that the educational inequality between the rich and poor could be exacerbated initially by the shutdown of schools. But, she hopes “a lot more kids are going to have devices in the home, and a lot more neighborhoods are going to have bandwidth that didn’t have it because of all of the contributions that are coming in.”

Schools will quickly develop new ways to teach and learn with technology, she said. “I don’t think school will go back to being entirely the way it was in the country.”

Access to food and nutrition is another concern weighing on school districts.

Los Angeles Unified this week has been ramping up “grab and go” food services to help feed more than half a million children displaced by the closing of schools due to the coronavirus outbreak. Children from poor and low-income families usually receive their weekday breakfast and lunch and, in some cases, dinner on campus.

Starting on Wednesday, parents and students can pick up food at 60 sites scattered throughout the nation’s second-largest school district. in Los Angeles and information about other resources have been published on the district website. All the locations are set up for both drive-through and walk-up distribution.

Volunteers will provide up to two packaged meals per person between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. Every distribution center will have a hand-wash station and supplies to check the temperature of workers. Because workers are separated from those receiving food, officials said, it won’t be necessary to conduct health screenings for those receiving food.

Organizers don’t want the distribution centers themselves to be a vector for transmitting the coronavirus, which is why they are concerned about how people line up to receive food. Each family will be asked to stand about six feet apart as they await their turn.

No advance sign-up is required, so the district does not know how many people will show up for meals. Officials say that for now, they will have 400,000 meals available per day.

L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner said no one would be turned away, whether or not they have a connection to the school system.

“Our intent is to serve children, but if adults ask, we will offer and we’re going to serve those in need,” Beutner. “These are not ordinary days… our goal is to help as many as we can.”

As for learning, teachers in most closed schools are trying to continue instruction through online coursework and extended homework assignments. L.A. Unified also has partnered with PBS SoCal to provide expanded educational programming.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has issued his own unprecedented orders, closing down bars, gyms and dining in restaurants, said on Tuesday that the governor’s warning on school closures came as no surprise.

He sympathizes with the difficulties many families are facing, and he himself has suddenly become a science and social science teacher at home for his daughter.

The city is looking into best practices around the country, and up and down California, to see what childcare could be provided. Broadband access and the ability to continue learning are all concerns, he said, but the health considerations must remain paramount.

“We know this will be a tough period,” he said, “but we know the most loving thing you can do for your child is to make sure that they don’t get hit by COVID-19, that they don’t spread it to your loved ones.”

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