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State budget sets standards, more accountability for pandemic-era education

As individual school districts across California consider how to reopen, lawmakers in Sacramento this week passed a state budget that’s intended to provide structure and demand accountability for schools during the pandemic.

Online education and related technology, student transfers, and the short-term growth of public charter schools all figure to be affected. But, for now at least, California schools figure to dodge the deep layoffs and budget cuts that marked the recession of 2008 and hurt schools for years after.

A key to how the state will govern schools in the coming year is Senate Bill 98, a rider that was approved in conjunction with the $202 billion budget signed Monday by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The new law sets school standards that go beyond the guidance and recommendations that’s been offered by the state and various agencies during the coronavirus pandemic.

The 2020 budget also sets a one-year rule that keeps each student’s funding with the district they attended last year. That freeze figures to limit student transfers between districts and public charter schools until the coronavirus pandemic eases, but it’s left many charter school parents and administrators crying foul.

The new rules for distance learning come after complaints that many districts kept poor records of student attendance during the coronavirus lockdown. Some argued that too many kids, often in low-income households, fell through the cracks, in some cases because they didn’t have a computer or good Wi-Fi connection.

Overall, local educators expressed relief that the budget – which defers billions in school funds from the fiscal year that started July 1 to the next year – won’t force immediate layoffs.

“The governor and the Legislature have valiantly come to the aid of the K-12 system,” said Orange County Superintendent Al Mijares.

“It doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods,” Mijares added. “We’ll probably have two austere years of funding, or more.”

Individual districts

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, and new rules about masks and closures change daily in California, most Southern California school district officials are still developing their own plans on how they will reopen.

Some districts are looking to offer families different options. Anaheim Elementary School District and Capistrano Unified, for example, are offering choices that include 100% online learning, or a program that divvies up instruction, 50% in the classroom and 50 % via extended learning. Some districts, such as Anaheim Union, Anaheim Elementary, Garden Grove Unified and Orange Unified, also plan to open new online academies as an option for their students.

And for many parents with children of different ages, the choices will vary from elementary to secondary schools within the same district. For example, Orange County’s second-biggest district, Santa Ana Unified, has looked at having high school students on campus only one day a week while offering more on-campus days for elementary students.

Districts are creating these reopening plans in the wake of guidelines from a variety of state and local agencies, including the California Department of Education, the California Department of Public Health, county departments of education, and others. Those recommendations typically have centered on rules affecting the health of students and staff  – like requiring face masks, daily temperature checks and social distancing -– but they haven’t set parameters for the number of days a student will see a teacher in person or how teachers should handle online instruction.

The key word in all those documents is “guidelines.” With the passage of the budget – and the SB 98 rider – school districts now have some firm rules to follow as they set up their re-opening plans.

Emily Gritchen works to complete schoolwork at their dining table in Rossmoor, in March. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

SB-98

The new law makes several changes to existing rules and allows for online learning – while adding some level of accountability for that distance instruction.

But some language in SB 98 has been described as ambiguous. That includes a key provision that calls for local educational agencies to offer in-person instruction “to the greatest extent possible.”

Assembly member Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, said he has concerns about the language, which he described as “restrictive.” He said the language also could be interpreted as suggesting the state doesn’t like distance learning.

“Its emphasis on getting kids in the classroom seemed to override the need to ensure students’ safety,” said O’Donnell, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee.

“I don’t believe the language is clear enough to offer districts the flexibility in delivering education in the fall,” O’Donnell added. “I would like the language to be clearer.”

O’Donnell and others want to see other clarifications as well. In one passage, for example, the law says distance learning may be offered under one of two circumstances: if either a state or local public health officer orders it, or if the student is “medically fragile,” meaning he or she would be at risk with in-person instruction, or is quarantining because of exposure to COVID-19.

“The law doesn’t clearly define what role the county health department has, versus the role of the state, versus the role of the county department of education,” O’Donnell said.

“If different people interpret the language to mean different things, then the language is not clear enough.”

Teachers, among others, believe at least some clarification will be provided as schools are closer to reopening.

“There are some vagueries,” said Ed Sibby, spokesman for the California Teachers Association. He expects clarification on a number of issues via budget trailer bills or state education guidance.

The new accountability measures of SB 98 call for districts and charter schools to create “learning continuity and attendance” plans, including information on how each district plans to provide instruction in the 20-21 school year.

Teachers participating in online learning must interact with students live every day, monitor their progress and maintain “school connectedness.” That interaction can happen online, by phone, or any other means allowed under public health orders.

Likewise, teachers also must communicate regularly with parents about how their students are progressing, and they’re supposed to reach out if a student is absent from distance learning more than three days in one week. Distance learning must be taught to grade level standards “at a level of quality and intellectual challenge substantially equivalent to in-person instruction,” the law states.

Michael Matsuda, superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District, said an accountability component had to be built in moving forward.

“Districts need to be held accountable for ensuring to the public that there’s not going to be any back sliding in instruction,” Matsuda said.

Mijares, the Orange County superintendent, said: “We want to have high quality online teaching. We want to make sure we’re not only teaching, but evaluating and measuring our progress.

“If a student misses too many days of school, that could be catastrophic for the entire year,” Mijares said.

Recent research suggests school shutdowns in the spring caused many students across the nation to fall many months behind, widening the gap in achievement levels between white students and Latino and Black students.

To address the disparities and challenges faced by many families, the law also requires schools to provide academic and other support for any student, including English learners, who isn’t performing at grade level. Schools also must provide students with devices and internet hot spots that will help them participate and complete their assigned work. State Superintendent of Schools Tony Thurmond has focused on the “digital divide” and is working with the private sector to close technology gaps and reduce barriers to low-income families.

Despite efforts by school districts to distribute devices and Wi-Fi hot spots during the lockdown, it often wasn’t enough. Many parents, and some educators, argued that education quality in California slipped sharply during the last quarter of the school year, when the pandemic hit and everyone had to scramble to adapt to a new online normal.

In some schools, attendance was not tracked and school assignments were recommended but not required. In many Southern California districts public school teachers did not give any Fs as a final quarter or semester grade, even to students who were failing prior to campuses being shutdown and who stopped doing any assignments after mid-March. The goal was to not punish students faced with circumstances they could not control.

Charter schools cry foul

The new standards for distance learning in SB 98, meant to address inconsistencies among districts and schools, will “prioritize quality instruction for all students,” Newsom wrote in a message that he delivered with his signature of the trailer.  The bill also attaches standards to something that districts have sought: a guarantee that school funding will be maintained even if students are being taught off campus.

Most years, education funding is based on how many students attend school each day. That was suspended during the spring lockdown, and districts were paid as if students were still on campus.

In the new school year, districts will get the same amount they received in 2019-2020, based on their student enrollment numbers at the end of February.

“Usually, we can predict how many students will show up in the fall,” said Long Beach Assemblyman O’Donnell. “Districts need that predictability to build budgets, operations. We don’t know how many (students) will be coming back.”

For districts that see a drop in attendance, the spending rules could be a bit of a boon. But for districts that see increased enrollment, that could mean a loss since the new law caps funding.

But charter school administrators, and parents who have kids in charter schools – or hope to – say the bill targets them specifically because it  reduces parents’ ability to choose where their children go to school.

“For the sake of the families and the kids, the funding needs to be fair,” said Sarah Bach, founder and executive director of Sycamore Creek Community Charter School in Huntington Beach.

Bach, whose three children attend Sycamore Creek, spent four years trying to get approval for the public charter school, which is based on the principles of a Waldorf education and its developmental, interdisciplinary approach. She opened a year ago, with 63 students, and ended the academic year with 80. For the fall, even before the pandemic hit, she had registered 129 students, with more expressing interest. Her classrooms are large and can accommodate more students, even with social distancing, she said.

But now, she doesn’t know what to tell parents because state funding will only pay for 63 students, the number she had in February.

“We couldn’t be in a worse position,” Bach said.

Placentia resident Windi Eklund has her children attending the Cabrillo Point Academy, a San Diego-based charter that provides online home school education. Eklund said the new law discriminates against charter schools, particularly online and home school programs that are likely to grow as some families consider leaving their district schools during the pandemic.

“Everyone is very confused about what’s next,” Eklund said.

Newsom, in his message on SB 98, acknowledged that funding schools at current levels “does not take into account schools that had planned expansions” and “families may be displaced.”

A possible fix could come in the near future. Newsom asked legislators to look for solutions in the coming weeks. And he pledged to work with lawmakers to enact them.


Source: Orange County Register

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