Most public school districts in California are planning to reopen campuses on their regular start dates in late August and September — but the new normal amid the coronavirus outbreak will likely include masks, daily school sanitation and smaller class sizes to maintain six feet of distance, state Supt. of Instruction Tony Thurmond said Wednesday.
Also, some school districts will likely offer a combination of in-person and distance learning, something parents have asked for, Thurmond said.
But the new safety accommodations will require more funding, Thurmond said during a news conference Wednesday, almost a week after the governor’s May budget revise slashed about $19 billion from schools over the next two years.
“We believe that our school districts cannot reopen safely if they have to implement these kinds of cuts,” Thurmond said, echoing the governor’s plea for additional federal aid for schools. “We need to maintain all that we have in our educational sector, and we’re going to need to be able to do more.”
California schools since mid-March due to the coronavirus crisis, disrupting the education of 6.1 million students. Educators have scrambled to provide distance learning for students and have attempted to provide computers and internet access to an estimated 1 in 5 students without digital access. However student needs have not been met evenly, especially in small and rural districts and those serving students from low income families.
Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom said schools could physically open as early as July.
Thurmond said the state was not mandating when schools would open and that the state Education Department was working with public health officials, school leaders and workplace safety experts to compile guidelines for how to do so safely.
“There will not be a common opening, rather school districts will make their own decisions about when they will open,” he said. The state Department of Education will keep track of district reopenings as they’re scheduled, he said.
Although some schools may open early, he said, many will end the school year when they normally do and take some time to plan for next year as well as “to address fatigue for educators.” Summer, though, is also potentially a time to provide enrichment for students “who may need some additional support to offset learning gaps that have occurred” during the shutdown, Thurmond said Wednesday.
School district leaders say that they need answers to complex challenges involving reopening campuses and need government funding to do so. They are asking multiple questions:
Will there be adequate testing and contact tracing available? Will schools be able to procure the necessary protective equipment, and will staff receive adequate cleaning equipment and training in how to use it? How will kids catch up on the learning they lost during school closures? How will schools pay for the necessary reductions in class sizes that experts say will have to be a part of the new normal?
The proposed budget hit to schools worsens existing financial challenges and district level leaders say it does not go far enough to pay for pandemic-related costs. Newsom did allot $4.4 billion in emergency federal aid to schools and redirected another $2.3 billion to ease the sting, reallocating money originally intended to reduce a long-term shortfall in educators’ pensions — a major priority for school districts, but less crucial than addressing the immediate crisis.
This week, superintendents of six of the state’s largest school districts — including L.A., San Diego and Long Beach — wrote in a letter to lawmakers that the governor’s May budget revise would hinder schools’ ability to reopen.
“Reopening our school campuses will require more — not fewer — resources to ensure and sustain proper implementation of public health guidance and the safety of all of those involved. Cuts will mean that the reopening of schools will be delayed even after State guidance and clearance from public health officials is given,” they wrote. “We cannot in good conscience risk the health and safety of our students and staff by returning to the classroom prematurely and without funding for the necessary precautions given the continued lack of a national testing program and a lack of clear understanding of the impacts of coronavirus on young people.”
Districts have incurred new costs since schools closed that include online learning resources, meals, cleaning and protective equipment, the letter said. In the coming academic year, they expect to spend more money to mitigate learning loss and added staff like nurses and mental health professionals.
On Thursday, Thurmond is scheduled to host a webinar “focus group” for school districts to discuss reopening guidance with and school districts.
By Sonali Kohli, Los Angeles Times. L.A. Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.