Coronavirus update: California officials to provide ongoing guidance to LEAs dealing with COVID-19 closures

State education and health officials convened March 18 for a webinar meant to ease some concerns held by county and district leaders surrounding the long-term, widespread school closures caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Currently, more than 98 percent of the state’s 6.2 million public school students remain out of school due to the rapidly evolving pandemic.

During the webinar, officials from the Governor’s Office, California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Health and Human Services Agency, and the California Department of Public Health discussed recently released guidance that addresses pressing topics during this period of school closures and shelter-in-place orders, such as how to provide distance learning, childcare and school meals.

“It goes without saying that we are currently experiencing very difficult times, uncharted territory, experiences that we’ve never seen before. In spite of that fact, Californians are resilient. And I want to acknowledge the resiliency of our students, our teachers, our classified staff, our administrators and the families of our students,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. “In spite of the circumstances that we currently face, we will continue to provide education for all of our students, and that’s really what our conversation is about today. How do we continue to do that?”

The guidance offers a solid starting point, but answers to many of the questions posed by school districts and county offices of education remain elusive. The webinar focused as much on inspiration and affirmation of principles as it did on tactics and strategy. In reassuring educators that they could do what is necessary to educate children during time of crisis without being left out to dry, Ben Chida, Deputy Cabinet Secretary for Gov. Newsom, told the virtual audience to, “Keep in mind that our north star is to do what calls you to this work, and we will have your back.”

Chida went on to outline four main priorities for schools during the closures:

  1. Maintain educational opportunities to the highest degree possible, primarily relying on distance learning
  2. Ensuring students are fed
  3. Supporting parents and families in caring for children
  4. Paying for workers

State Superintendent Thurmond expressed a similar message, stating that every school will receive the resources it needs to continue education. Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Tuesday that he anticipates few schools, if any, will reopen before summer break, and that the SBE will file a request with the U.S. Department of Education to waive standardized testing requirements for the current school year. Thurmond reinforced the state’s commitment to suspending the mandates K-12 assessments for this school year. He described testing in the current environment as “not feasible,” saying “We don’t think students and educators should be subjected to testing requirements.”

Thurmond and others noted that CDE staff will continue to adjust their focus for future guidance and work with federal officials to address and gain clarity on where school and district leaders require the most assistance. Currently, workgroups are being established to study promising practices and solutions so they can be replicated statewide.

Distance learning
CDE released a framework for how LEAs can deliver high-quality educational opportunities to students during school closures, as well as examples of promising practices. It is vital that this instruction is equitable, and that steps are taken to ensure that offsite learning opportunities are available to all students to the greatest extent possible, including socio-economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities and English learners.

That may mean providing an array of solutions depending on student need. Low-income youth may not have access to Wi-Fi or a device at home suitable for participation in learning activities; in which case, LEAs could leverage mobile devices as an option for engagement, or lend students district-owned devices on a rotating basis if there are not a sufficient number of devices during extended closures.

LEAs should also focus their planning efforts regarding how to continue serving students with disabilities. As each student will likely have different needs, this means tailoring distance learning to provide educational benefits to these children to the greatest extent practicable under the circumstances. Doing so may require more flexibility in providing access to school-purchased assistive technology devices when necessary to ensure that students have access to devices they use at school.

Items of Note, Outstanding Questions, and Areas of Concern:

  • On-site tech use: Guidance makes it clear that districts can’t just decide to eliminate digital distance learning due to inequitable access and should offer alternative digital delivery by providing devices or internet at schools or community sites – so long as they practice social distancing and disinfecting. This could pose transportation access and supervision-related questions as students come to retrieve technology, something LEAs should plan for.
  • Instructional materials: Guidance on distance learning specifically mentions that CA law requires access to standards-aligned textbooks or instructional materials in core subjects for use in class or to take home. LEAs should establish systems for distribution and tracking.
  • Divide likely even wider when factoring multiple users: For students who have a computer in the home, what happens when there are multiple children who must share (perhaps even with a parent or two)? Lessons should be time flexible, since a family won’t all be able to be on device at the same time.
  • Data limits: People who use phones as their device might be on restricted data plans that will not accommodate distance learning.
  • Tech troubleshooting: Any district that provides electronic devices and/or mobile Wi-Fi, will need to develop and communicate a process for providing timely troubleshooting and repairs. This may be an even bigger need for places that are distributing devices for the first time.

School meals
Gov. Newsom issued an executive order addressing some of the unresolved questions prompted by coronavirus-related school closures on March 13 calling on school districts and county offices of education to continue offering meals to children eligible for free or reduced-price lunch during campus closures through the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option, consistent with the requirements of the CDE and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Schools can distribute meals at sites convenient to members in their community. Locations can include, but are not limited to, local food banks, resource centers, libraries, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and community centers.

In order to best comply with social distancing guidelines from health department officials, it is recommended that food be distributed in a way that allows students to eat elsewhere. Schools can accomplish this through different methods, including distributing meals using a school food truck or sending a box or bag meal home with students for multiple days.

Items of Note, Outstanding Questions, and Areas of Concern:

  • Robust Outreach: Districts will need to be rigorous in their outreach to families about the meals program, and not just via email. For districts where more than 50 percent of students are currently eligible, they can distribute meals to any student under 18, whether or not they’re currently listed as eligible. However, in those districts that don’t meet that threshold, the students must be listed as eligible. There are likely many students not currently enrolled in the program whose family financial circumstances have changed or will change soon. LEAs will need to provide an easy way for students to submit paperwork if the federal government doesn’t offer a waiver soon.
  • Flexible meal provision: EdWeek mentioned that the federal government may also need to offer additional flexibility on the current regulation that students must be present during meal distribution (e.g., in the car if doing drive-thru pickup). In their example, they referenced medically fragile students, this might not be practical or feasible. This may also be tricky for families of essential workers who are first responders/working long shifts and for whom it would be simpler to swing by and get food on their way to or from work.
  • Transportation: Provide clarity on how students and families can use public transportation to access meals. Under current shelter-in-place guidelines, this appears to be an allowed activity, and many families use public transportation, but in this changing landscape, if they don’t have access to a vehicle, they may not feel comfortable bringing their kids on public transportation.
  • Shelf-stable food: LEAs should remember they can apply for permission to provide shelf-stable food for multiple days to reduce the logistical burden of getting to/from the pick-up.

Childcare and Student Supervision
Items of Note, Outstanding Questions, and Areas of Concern:

  • Open to interpretation: The guidance language doesn’t mandate much action, instead stating that “LEA’s need to consider …” As a result, we expect to see wide-ranging responses on child supervision during school hours and great variance in the quality of educational services provided through distance learning. Sharing promising practices and what’s working for districts will be critical in the coming weeks.

Special Education
Items of Note, Outstanding Questions, and Areas of Concern:

  • Help is on the way: The CDE website states that additional guidance will be coming shortly regarding various models to effectively serve students with disabilities in a distance learning environment. The state is convening a workgroup of experts and practitioners to determine how best to serve students with disabilities in our current context.
  • IDEA still in place: It is important to note that the federal government has not waived the federal requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and that if an LEA continues to provide educational opportunities to the general student population during a school closure, the school must ensure that students with IEPs also have equal access to the same opportunities as per FAPE.
  • Staff support: IEP teams, including education specialists (people with the SPED credential who have students in their caseloads) will need to look at each student’s IEP and determine what additional accessibility supports they’ll need in the home to conduct distance learning.
  • Don’t ignore 504s: School will also need to look at students with 504 plans. Here, ed specialists are not required to review the plans. An admin, counselor, or school psychologist can likely make the call although these are uncharted waters.
  • Specialized therapies/services: Many students with disabilities receive contracted services or therapies with specialists (speech therapy, occupational therapy, etc.). The guidance says they should try to continue providing these services, “consistent with social distancing guidelines and accounting for the health needs of students and staff.”
  • Assistive tech costs: The expense of purchasing assistive technology could be notable, depending on the district size. Especially considering the other expenses also likely to be an issue as we adapt to distance learning. In addition, supplies could be an issue if vendors encounter increased demand from around the country in this niche market. Again, the IEP team or credentialed personnel would help determine what’s needed.

Guidance is ongoing, and governance teams must stay up to date

In a letter to local education officials, CDE and California Health and Human Services Agency staff noted that “many questions surrounding testing, meal delivery in areas under shelter-in-place orders and other issues remain unanswered, but CDE officials said they’ll provide updates each Friday and update guidance when appropriate.”

Additionally, staff concluded that LEAs should continue to utilize federal, state and local public health guidance in decision-making and collaborate with their city and county officials on how best to work within their communities.

Stay up to date on the latest COVID-19 news and resources on CSBA’s dedicated webpage