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San Bernardino school system plans to stay online for the entire year. Will other districts follow?

A view of the glass and concrete exterior of the San Bernardino City Unified School District headquarters.
San Bernardino City Unified School District headquarters.
(San Bernardino City Unified)

The San Bernardino school system will not reopen its campuses for the remainder of the school year, a response to the surging coronavirus crisis and a move that may make it the first in the state to make the difficult decision to keep students online in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The state’s eighth-largest school district, with about 47,000 students, may be the first, but others could follow as districts throughout California — including Los Angeles Unified — have yet to make decisions on whether or when they will fully reopen for in-person classes.

The San Bernardino City Unified Board of Education voted on Tuesday to extend campus shutdowns.

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“The board’s decision is consistent with its steadfast commitment to safety for students and employees,” the district said in an online announcement. “This decision will enable district staff to focus greater resources toward strengthening distance learning while also allowing families to better plan.”

The announcement stated that the action was taken “after carefully weighing local COVID-19 figures that show the virus is spreading at alarming rates and families living in its attendance boundaries are especially at risk.”

Data from the San Bernardino County Health Department indicate that the coronavirus infection rate within the school district’s boundaries is among the highest in the county. The total population within the school system is about 267,000, and there have been more than 11,000 recorded infections. Among the age group of 5 to 19, there have been 1,393 cases reported to date.

The options for families in San Bernardino City Unified are slim — because the school system has not yet taken advantage of state guidelines that allow for in-person services for students with special needs, including students who are learning English and students with disabilities.

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Under this exception, up to 25% of a school’s enrollment can be brought on campus at a time. About 20% of district students are classified as English learners. About 12% are students with disabilities.

“As part of their decision, in-person accommodations for small groups of students with specifically identified educational needs will be offered when the board deems it safe to do so,” the announcement stated.

The district’s decision underscores once again the disparity between school systems that serve more affluent communities with lower virus transmission rates versus those that serve low-income neighborhoods, which are more likely to have higher coronavirus rates.

About 9 in 10 San Bernardino district students are members of low-income families. These families also have more difficulty providing supervision and support for children forced to do all their schoolwork online. Families in low-income areas also have been among the last to receive the technology needed to do their schooling from home.

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Some elementary schools have been able to reopen through waivers approved by county health departments. San Bernardino County allows waivers for schools to serve students up through sixth grade. L.A. County is granting waivers through second grade.

In L.A. County, private schools were generally the first to apply for and receive waivers. More public schools are now applying and being granted waivers, but, so far, the public school systems that are successfully pursuing waivers appear to be concentrated in higher-income areas.

The status of campus reopenings varies from county to county because of state health guidelines. Both L.A. County and San Bernardino County have remained in the most restrictive, or purple, tier when it comes to infection rates. Other nearby counties, including Orange and San Diego, have fared better — and school systems in those counties were allowed to reopen campuses under extensive safety protocols if they chose to do so. If schools did open during that less restrictive period, they are allowed to remain open, even though every Southern California county has now fallen into the purple tier.

Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest district, has been hopeful of opening its campuses in January, but that timetable could be jeopardized by the current pandemic surge.


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