What will it take to reopen schools in CA? Officials consider slashing class sizes, outdoor learning

SAN FRANCISCO -- State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond hosted a virtual meeting with representatives from 1,000 California school districts to discuss how classrooms may reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Educators, superintendents and custodians came together to share their concerns about reopening safely and lay out what they believe needs to happen before reopening.

The state is looking at ways to make the physical classroom safer, like slashing class sizes and even utilizing outdoor spaces for teaching.

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Superintendent Thurmond said any plan to bring students and teachers back into the classroom will require everyone to have proper protective equipment, including face masks. School districts could also implement temperature checks for staff, if they so choose.

Lesson plans will likely be a blend of in-person and online teaching, with more in-person instruction emphasized for elementary students and more distance learning assigned to older students.

A top concern for all was the mental health of students. Teachers shared they've seen signs kids have been experiencing a lot of anxiety over the past few months, and they believe more counseling will be needed to help students transition back into the classroom.

"Our kids have been through so much," said teacher Erika Jones. "They deserve more right now."

There's also a concern that distance learning has left behind some of the most vulnerable students.

"Even on its best day, distance learning doesn't work for all our students," said San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten. "There's not learning from home for our families without a home."

"Right now, the current budget plan is a recipe for more distance and less learning."

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Marten emphasized that everything that needs to happen before reopening schools (extra custodial staff, smaller class sizes, etc.) calls for more funding, not less.

"This is not politics. This is math. We cannot absorb a 10% cut in funding at the same time we're trying to do more to reopen safely," she said.

Superintendent Thurmond said reopening guidelines from the California Department of Education will come in the next few weeks.

In a press conference Wednesday, Thurmond said districts will be given flexibility to decide when they'll reopen.

"There will not be a common opening," Thurmond said in a press conference Wednesday. Instead, school districts will make their own decisions about when - and how - to reopen.

While some districts have already gotten permission to open schools early, Thurmond said most districts are still planning to reopen at their normal time in the fall, in late August or early September.

The state won't be requiring school districts to do in-person instruction, online instruction, or a hybrid of the two -- that will be up to district leaders.

But in order to teach students effectively in the fall, the superintendent says more funding is desperately needed. The revised May budget released by Gov. Gavin Newsom last week will trigger cuts to education unless there is additional support from the federal government.

"We believe that our school districts cannot reopen safely if they have to implement these kinds of cuts," Thurmond said.

With an eye on reopening classrooms in the fall, school districts are asking parents to weigh in on what that should look like. Oakland Unified recently sent out an online survey, available in six languages, asking for feedback. Oakland parents are also being asked if they think their child is academically ready to move up to the next grade.

The nonprofit Go Public Schools is just one of many organizations working with Oakland Unified on the survey.

"Families are going to need that information and schools are too so they can plan around intervention and knowing where to allocate resources to make sure that we recover from this pandemic in the most equitable and just way possible," one official said.

Just as important for the district is knowing how parents feel about reopening schools.

Here are the seven options:
  • Continue with distance learning

  • Students start classes earlier in July

  • Have kids in school for half a day with some remote learning

  • Make in-person learning optional

  • Have in-school instruction one day and distance learning the next day

  • District changes to year-round school to make up for lost learning

  • Students in certain grades will be expected to start the school year earlier


Other school districts in California are also asking parents to weigh in.

ABC7 News Report Lyanne Melendez contributed to this report.

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