More explicit guidance for distance learning sparks debate in Legislature | EdSource


In March, Gov. Gavin Newsom suspended state laws setting the length of the school year and minimum daily instructional minutes when he signed an executive order to fully fund schools for the rest of the year.

That order will expire July 1, and what will take its place has become embroiled in a debate over the shortcomings of distance learning under local control. The clock is ticking; the Legislature wants to establish instructional minimums, along with tighter rules for distance learning, by the June 15 deadline to pass next year’s state budget. Talks between legislative leaders and the Newsom administration are ongoing this week.

Potentially facing further school closures, budget cuts and higher costs because of the pandemic, an organization representing schools boards, school administrators and teachers unions has called for maximum flexibility over the school calendar and at least another year of assured state funding.

“Unprecedented times require innovative responses,” the California School Boards Association wrote in a report, issued Tuesday, on reopening schools. “The proposed scenarios for resuming school will require regulatory relief.”

They’re expected to get some of what they want, starting with funding. Current state law permits districts to be funded at the rate of the greater of the past two years. As a result, districts in 2020-21 can claim full funding again based on last year’s funding level. The same would then apply to 2021-22.

But in return for calendar flexibility, two dozen civil rights organizations and student advocacy groups, collectively called the Equity Coalition, and parent groups in Los Angeles and the Bay Area are demanding that the Legislature set tighter standards and more oversight over distance learning. They’ve been critical of poor implementation of remote instruction and big gaps in technology and internet access in many school districts, particularly those serving low-income, black and Latino students.

“The threshold is too low for distance learning,” Aurea Montes-Rodriguez, executive vice president of the nonprofit Community Coalition in South Los Angeles, said Tuesday. She spoke at a news conference on the release of a new report by the Advancement Project, recommending ways to achieve racial equity in the state budget.

One parent’s frustration

Too many parents have shared the frustration of Kusema Thomas, the father of a fifth-grader at 232nd Place Elementary School in Carson, part of Los Angeles Unified. His son didn’t receive a laptop until the fourth week of instruction. He received live instruction for an hour a day and found it hard to ask questions on Zoom with students forgetting to mute their mics.

“He can’t stand it,” Thomas said. “He says, ‘This is not fun; it’s not real school.’” He said his son is a conscientious student who keeps up with assignments daily, but weeks into distance learning he got an email that his son was behind. That’s because he didn’t get instructions on how to upload work assignments, and the principal didn’t communicate with parents, Thomas said.

Legislative and state leaders appear to be looking for middle ground between prescriptive mandates and Newsom’s March 13 directive that districts should provide “high-quality” educational opportunities “to the extent feasible.”

When Newsom issued his guidance, rates of coronavirus infections were rising; his focus was more on keeping teachers and students safe than on long-term instruction. Three months later, legislators like Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee and is involved in the distance learning discussions, have become critical of some districts’ inconsistent and belated efforts to conduct distance learning effectively.

Newsom has as well. Last week, he defended his plan to direct $4 billion to low-income districts to address students falling further behind academically by citing new research on learning loss. The consulting company McKinsey & Company found that low-income students were far more likely to receive poor distance learning instruction and would return to school at the end of this year having lost a year of instruction.

During a recent webcast by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond agreed with the need to suspend instructional minute regulations. The coronavirus has disrupted traditional school patterns and funding based on in-school attendance, and districts need flexibility to create new models, she said.

But she also said that disparities among districts’ distance learning have created a “huge inequality.” Districts’ efforts to reach out to students have varied; as a result, “some kids are going completely uneducated right now,” she said.

Darling-Hammond acknowledged a need to create “parameters” for distance learning around questions like, “What does quality distance learning consist of? What kinds of interactions should be anticipated among adults and kids?” She has participated in the talks on forthcoming guidance that will address these and other questions.

Minimum days and minutes of instruction

California requires 180 days of instruction per year (175 days for charter schools). The minimum number of instructional hours per year varies by grade: 600 for kindergarten, 840 for grades 1 to 3; 900 for grades 4 to 8 and 1060 for high school.

During the last recession, some teachers’ unions agreed to forego scheduled pay raises, but others negotiated pay cuts through furloughs, which had the effect of reducing the school year. Districts want that option available again. Some of the “blended” models for instruction call for elementary students splitting time between school and at home doing distance learning, with Fridays reserved for teacher collaboration and training.

Districts and teachers unions are warning that cycles of closing and re-opening schools in response to surges of coronavirus infections would also create havoc with the calendar.

Measuring time through distance learning is harder than an in-person school schedule, since some teachers and schools upload lesson plans and videos for students to view, and they expect students to work independently off-line. However, since March, some districts have required only a handful of hours of instruction per week, whether live or recorded, and a minimum of interaction with students.

“If you are attempting to deliver the same quality of instruction that you had before the pandemic, it would be wildly irresponsible to offer one hour per day and pretend that would be sufficient,” said Brian Greenberg, CEO of the Silicon Schools Fund, which invests in charter schools and innovative projects in traditional districts.

What parents and advocacy groups want

In a June 3 legislative alert to its members, the Equity Coalition called on the Legislature not to waive instructional minutes and days unless there are “minimum safeguards for all students that exceed what some students have experienced over the last 10 weeks.” Even then, the instructional year should be shortened only in the event of closures due to coronavirus outbreaks.

The coalition says districts should be required to develop “instructional continuity plans” in which districts would commit to:

The coalition wants the Legislature to empower the California Department of Education and county offices of education to intervene in those districts where there is “egregious underperformance” in high-quality distance learning.

Working with parent leaders in district and charter schools in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, the nonprofit Innovate Public Schools issued a similar 10-point list. It includes requiring all teachers to communicate individually with every student in their class at least once a week by phone or video to discuss academics and social-emotional wellness and to communicate with parents at least once a week.

School districts and the California Teachers Association have opposed state-imposed mandates on instructional methods, which they say should be left to districts to decide or to negotiate with unions under local control.

But in its 30-page school reopening document, published in late May, the Association of California School Administrators included a 10-point “Essential Commitments to Equitable Education” that are broadly compatible with the Equity Coalition’s more specific demands.

“Commitments” require action. “Guidance” implies advice. Education groups are waiting to see how legislators and Newsom frame their document on distance learning, expected within days.

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John Fensterwald writes about education policy and its impact in California.

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