COVID: Gov. Newsom cites progress even as state lags in school reopening

Gov. Gavin Newsom visited a Sonoma elementary school Wednesday to tout progress on school reopening efforts even as national analyses put California last among all states in the amount of in-person classroom instruction its public districts are offering students.

“This is the week we’ve been waiting for, when see massive scaling of children returning to our schools,” Newsom said during a visit to Sheppard Elementary in Santa Rosa. “Every single day, hundreds of schools are reopening.”

Newsom’s visit comes six weeks after he signed a $6.6 billion bill to spur schools to returns kids to classrooms and pay for programs to help recover learning lost from school closures over the past 13 months. The visit was also two weeks after the legislation’s deadline for districts to fully qualify for financial aid by partially reopening schools to in-person learning.

While districts throughout the state have recently started returning kids to classrooms, with more planned in weeks to come, those classes are overwhelmingly a “hybrid” mix of in-person learning and online “distance learning” at home, even as many students across the country have returned to school full time for months. And many of those hybrid plans offer just a few hours a week inside the classroom.

Several private organizations tracking school reopening nationally have ranked California dead last in the amount of in-person instruction districts offer to students.

“California is behind,” said Dennis Roche, co-founder of Burbio, a community data service in New York that has been auditing 1,200 districts of various sizes across the country on their reopening status since last fall with 72-hour updates. “California is definitely introducing more in-person learning, they’re just slower. They’re lighter in terms of the in-person classroom time.”

In Burbio‘s analysis, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Maryland are the farthest behind in the amount of in-person instruction, with the Golden State trailing the bunch.

A similar Return2Learn Tracker sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., public policy think tank, showed California as of April 5 had the highest percentage of fully remote school districts — 23.3% — and at 17.9%, one of the lowest percentages offering full-time in-person instruction It indicated Florida and Iowa schools were all back full time, while Hawaii was entirely hybrid.

Newsom said he expects — “with caveats” — that schools will fully reopen in the fall, and is working with lawmakers to make that possible, as the state would have to extend authorization for distance learning as an option, if parents choose it.

Megan Bacigalupi, a parent advocate with the group OpenSchoolsCA whose daughters attend school in the Oakland Unified district, said Wednesday the governor’s words rang hollow given that most public schools offer in-person learning for only limited hours and grades.

Oakland Unified started returning transitional kindergarten through second grade students to campus March 30 in a hybrid format that will extend through sixth grade starting Monday, Bacigalupi said. But because teachers weren’t required to teach in person until April 19 and only 38% opted to teach in-person starting in March, not all those schools opened or fully opened. And Bacigalupi said her kids’ school is only teaching in person two afternoons a week for two and a half hours a day.

“The Governor mentioned that the vast majority of schools are open or expected to open soon, yet in many districts ‘open’ means five hours per week of in-person instruction or students in classrooms with a teacher still on Zoom,” Bacigalupi said Wednesday.

With the state’s low rates of COVID-19 cases and vaccine availability, Bacigalupi said, “schools should be open now full time for all grade levels and there is no reason a majority of California students should have to wait until fall for this to happen.”

Some school districts, including Fremont Unified, one of the Bay Area’s largest with more than 35,000 students, have abandoned the idea of returning kids to classrooms this school year and remain in remote learning. The district announced its decision on March 31, the reopening deadline to qualify for the full state aid, saying it was because it couldn’t reach an agreement with its teachers union.

Parent frustration over the state’s slow pace of bringing kids back to campus has helped fuel an effort to recall Newsomin November, and leading Republicans vying to replace the Democratic governor have assailed the state’s meager in-person learning. Polls suggest the recall faces long odds in heavily Democratic California.

“Our children deserve better than part-time classroom teaching,” said Kevin Falconer, a former San Diego mayor who’s running for governor.

Laurie Biggers, acting superintendent of Roseland School District, which includes Sheppard Elementary, said the district returned transitional kindergarten through second grade this week for a hybrid format that includes bringing kids back to campus two days a week for up to four and a half hours of in-person instruction each day. She said the district was among the hardest hit by the virus and many parents opted to stay with remote learning, which made reopening challenging.

Newsom said Wednesday that “I want all the schools to reopen — I’ve been crystal clear about that since December.” But as he has indicated before, he doesn’t see a mandate as useful, and believes the state must respect the needs of individual districts. He noted that the state’s education system is “decentralized” and that schools like Sheppard Elementary serves a mostly Latino population hard-hit by, and fearful of, the coronavirus.

“I don’t have closed fist on this, I have open hand, but also an open heart,” Newsom said. “I want to challenge those districts, but I also want to support them… mindful of the challenges they’re facing.”

 

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Author: John Woolfolk


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