California schools chief: Distance learning ‘our best option’ in many communities for now

By Mackenzie Mays 10/14/2020 07:00 PM EDT

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California schools chief Tony Thurmond stood firm Wednesday against wide- scale campus reopening and said districts should make decisions based on public health standards, not politics.

“Safety is the highest order at this time. I don’t want to politicize this issue,” Thurmond said at a joint hearing on distance learning held by two Assembly committees. “We’ve seen so many examples of where schools have just opened too soon and it has resulted in real harm.”

The debate: Thurmond, the state superintendent of public instruction, addressed reopening after being pressed by Assemblymember Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) about why campuses aren’t opening their doors at a faster pace. While many counties have been allowed to welcome students back under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state reopening system based on declining Covid-19 rates, districts have authority and most have chosen to continue with distance learning.

“The harms being done by keeping kids out of school far exceed the risks of contracting this virus,” Kiley said at Wednesday’s hearing. “The state should be doing everything it can to get every school in California back open as quickly as possible but instead we’re seeing quite the opposite. We’re seeing the state aid and abet those who would use school closures for political purposes. We’re seeing new reasons invented to keep schools close.”

Kiley pointed to a letter from three Sacramento-area teachers unions last week that urged districts to remain closed even though Sacramento County districts were allowed to reopen campuses this month. The unions said that some districts within the county are not experiencing the same declines in coronavirus and urged against a rush to open schools, warning that disproportionate reopening will give some students “a head start” and deepen inequalities.

“Our position from the beginning has been simple: California cannot physically open schools for in-person instruction unless it is safe. The politicization of school reopening and in-person instruction cannot allow us to stray from this core principle and from the science that drives it,” the letter states.

Kiley called that position “monstrous.”

Thurmond, who was endorsed by the California Teachers Association in his narrow 2018 election win, echoed union concerns about not reopening until it is proven safe to do so.

“I’m not sure how else to put it other than to say safety is paramount,” Thurmond said. “We all agree that ultimately the best place for our students is to be in school, but when we can get there, when it’s safe enough for them to do so. We have to proceed cautiously and that means for now, for many of our communities, distance learning is our best option.”

How to reopen: Lawmakers on Wednesday pressed state Board of Education President Linda Darling- Hammond about how to proceed with campus reopenings and if hybrid models of in-person and distance learning are an immediate option.page1image36693376

Hammond warned that while some East Coast school districts have managed a hybrid option, it should only be done in California where infection rates are low and if “everyone in the school is following the rules” regarding social distancing and masks.

While hundreds of thousands of students in the state still need computers and internet access, Hammond said the solution to the digital divide is not a rush to reopen campuses.

“We can’t get over these problems with distance learning only by just sending everyone back to school in person,” she said. “We’ve got to do it safely and in a careful way.”

What’s next: Kiley said he has a requested a legislative hearing on reopening schools after the in-person instruction debate started to overshadow the digital divide conversation.

“That really is not the focus of this hearing, the focus of this hearing is on access to the internet,” said Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach). “I share your passion that students get back to the classroom in a safe manner based on science, not just political science but actually biological and epidemiological science.”

But signs suggest that more California communities are having conversations about reopening based on improving data. State Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly last week said that so far this fall, “We have not seen a connection between increased transmission and school reopening or in-person learning.”

As more counties get the green light to move ahead with reopening, the politicization of the issue is likely to continue.

Districts and teachers unions will likely go head to head over plans at the bargaining table. And a partisan divide is already emerging, as many Republican-leaning areas have moved forward with reopening plans in counties that allow in-person instruction, while Democratic communities have tended to wait, especially in large cities.

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