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California schools unlikely to reopen this academic year amid coronavirus, state schools chief says

Tenth-grader Fredy Rubio, 16, center, and his mother, Carolyn Chavez, pick up a laptop last week at Linda Esperanza Marquez High School in Huntington Park for schoolwork at home.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

California public school campuses are unlikely to reopen for the remainder of the academic school year in response to the coronavirus pandemic, state Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said Tuesday in a letter to school district officials.

“Due to the current safety concerns and needs for ongoing social distancing it currently appears that our students will not be able to return to school campuses before the end of the school year,” Thurmond wrote.

Earlier, Thurmond had resisted suggestions that there was no hope for returning to campus. His letter represented a shift in direction and echoed views that Gov. Gavin Newsom expressed two weeks ago, which the governor reiterated Tuesday.

Newsom said at a briefing that an announcement on the fate of the school year could come “in the next day or two.”

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Seven states have already shut down campuses for the remainder of the school year, according to tracking by Education Week. Others appear headed in that direction.

Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school system, closed its schools on March 16. L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner recently extended that campus closure to May 1, in line with recommendations from the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

The extended school closures present numerous questions that state education leaders must answer.

School districts have yet to receive firm state guidance on how students should be graded, how attendance requirements will be modified and how graduation requirements could be affected, said L.A. school board President Richard Vladovic.

“There’s a plethora of issues that need to be discussed with all the districts,” Vladovic said. “We have to move as a state. It has to be consistent throughout the state because otherwise kids are going to be cheated.”

In his letter, Thurmond said the sobering reality should compel school systems redouble their efforts to keep students learning.

“This is in no way to suggest that school is over for the year, but rather we should put all efforts into strengthening our delivery of education through distance learning,” Thurmond wrote.

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Newsom acknowledged that much work needs to be done to make sure that instruction is reaching students.

“We have more work to do: internet connection, rural issues, and still trying to address the anxiety of parents like me and my wife and millions of others about whether or not kids are going to go back to school this calendar year or not,” Newsom said. “I have been clear in my belief they will not, but let me announce formally what the superintendent of public education believes and what the superintendents believe — and expect that announcement in the next day or two.”

In a news conference that largely addressed other issues, Newsom said that Thurmond had been on a group call Monday with the superintendents of each county, with part of the discussion focusing on efforts to feed students. So far, about 73 school systems are offering meal programs, Newsom said.

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Although that figure represents a small minority of the state’s 1,037 school districts, it includes some of the largest — such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno and Long Beach. L.A. Unified alone is handing out more than 400,000 meals a day to all who ask, according to the district.

In addition, Thurmond “also talked about the calendar, talked about the summer coming upon us,” Newsom said. “He talked not just about the calendar this spring but the fall calendar, talked about how people in communities large and small, districts large and small, have different expectations when they may or may not come back. We are working together to go together, to formalize a much more robust framework.”

L.A. Unified moved swiftly and is spending $100 million from its reserves to purchase computers and internet access for students who need it. Even so, district Supt. Beutner disclosed Monday that the district has been unable to connect with about 15,000 high school students, more than 12%. In addition, about one-third of high schoolers are not interacting with their teachers on a typical school day. Some of these students, however, may be completing assignments that don’t require a daily check-in.

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L.A. school board member Jackie Goldberg said district employees have made a Herculean effort to connect with and serve students in a district where 80% are members of low-income households.

“We are trying to hook up every single child to the internet, not only during this period of distance learning but so they will still be connected when they get back in school,” Goldberg said. “Nobody has ever tried to do that in a district this size before. People are working seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”

Times staff writer Sonali Kohli contributed to this report.


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