The California Department of Education on Monday, June 8, released a 55-page document to guide local educational agencies in their planning and discussions on physically reopening schools. “What we’ve done is compiled, as best as we can, a ‘how to’ to how we can safely reopen schools,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said during a webinar unveiling the document to LEAs.
The document features a 10-page health and safety checklist for LEAs for resuming in-person instruction and dives deep into considerations for instructional programs; professional relationships and learning; continuity of relationships and learning plans; mental health and well-being for all; communication and community engagement; early learning and care; and school services such as meals and transportation. The guidance’s appendices answer frequently asked questions and include a resource list.
“The CDE guidebook offers board members an array of important considerations to plan and prepare for before the start of the 2020–21 academic year. Similar to the California Department of Public Health guidance released last week, however, the document does not provide a realistic version of what is feasible or practicable for schools with their current funding levels,” CSBA CEO & Executive Director Vernon M. Billy said. “Unless public education sees a much-needed funding boost, we worry that the majority of these recommendations will not come to fruition and schools will not be able to safely reopen.”
Moving forward, Thurmond said the CDE will work with districts and schools to fine-tune some of the report’s recommendations as they are adapted for local contexts and as more information about COVID-19 is made available.
“We know that guidance is only as good as its implementation, so think of this as the beginning of the conversation — not the end,” he said. The CDE noted that it is developing guidance on standards for quality distance learning that will soon be posted on the department’s website.
CSBA was among the statewide organizations that provided input to the SPI about the various issues and concerns expressed by district and county office board members.
An emphasis on comprehensive health and safety plans
The health and safety considerations checklist for LEAs largely mirrors recommendations put forward by the California Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as offering citations of Cal/OSHA regulations.
Acknowledging concerns that CSBA, its members and districts and county offices across the state have expressed about the ability to safely resume in-person instruction without greater funding and resources, Thurmond wrote in a June 5 letter to LEA leaders that the CDE is “advocating for and have engaged in dialogue with the Governor’s Office, the Department of Finance, the Legislature, and educational stakeholders regarding the resources necessary to reopen safely with physical distancing measures in place.”
The guidance recommends LEAs revisit existing bargaining agreements with their labor groups to address the differences these recommended changes may bring for employees’ operations and schedules.
In summarizing a Learning Policy Institute report on how other countries have welcomed students back to campus — with younger children generally returning to the classroom first — State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond said that merely focusing on social distancing will likely not keep COVID-19 at bay. “The elements of how people are together in spaces is very important, and then equally important is the testing and tracking and quarantining that is necessary,” she said. “We want to hold those up as equally important in the planning that you do.”
The guidance reinforces the call for all students and staff members to wear face coverings, a topic addressed by Catherine Goins, early childhood administrator for the Placer County Office of Education, which supports more than 200 early childhood programs that have been operating throughout the pandemic.
“It is so important for the children to have a chance to practice with them,” Goins offered about face coverings, saying that younger students, in particular, need to learn why and how they are using the masks. Additional key lessons learned include the need to translate health and safety materials into multiple languages and to never assume that children will come from households where face coverings or thermometers are available.
Instructional offerings and considerations for student groups
Much of the remainder of the CDE document offers examples of instructional scheduling model options (including a two-day rotation blended learning model and a looping structure for grades K-8), as well as special considerations for educating students with special education needs and those who are English learners.
The Special Education Local Plan Area Administrators of California surveyed its membership and provided a number of considerations for LEAs as they build their plans to return to school sites, including how these students may not be able to use personal protective equipment and how to plan for students who are medically fragile or immune compromised.
Additionally, while the federal Office of Special Education Programs and CDE initially provided guidance that individualized education program amendments were not necessarily required in the shift to distance learning, the CDE guidebook states that “the duration and overarching changes to education delivery in many cases will warrant changes to students’ IEPs.”
Similarly, LEAs are encouraged to provide extra attention to the state’s 1.1 million English learners enrolled in public schools, including by monitoring learning loss so that these students have the opportunity to recover skills lost or diminished during school closures or distance learning.