SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Some 90% of California students will start their school year doing distance learning, a reality of the ongoing pandemic leading state officials to help bridge gaps for districts and families until students can return to campuses, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday.
Newsom acknowledged the “deep anxiety” of making the upcoming school year a success amid the pandemic, calling it “a challenging moment for all of us, and particularly parents.” Districts in San Diego County have been reopening virtually in recent weeks, and many are awaiting state and local guidance for when they will be able to welcome students and staff back to school.
Ultimately, that is the state’s goal, Newsom said. He argued the benefits of in-person instruction — such as developing meaningful relationships between students and teachers — and called distance learning formats “suboptimal” in that way.
“I’m very mindful that every single child is unique; every child is special; and every single child has a unique expression,” Newsom said. “That means that no two of us learn the same. As a consequence, this conversation we’ll have today … it means something different for every person watching.”
In anticipation of schools reopening sometime in the future, the state has provided to school districts more than 18 million masks and face shields, roughly 58,000 no-touch thermometers and 1.5 million gallons of hand sanitizer, he said.
Additionally, districts have received some 73,000 devices and more than 100,000 hotspots, he said.
But with most students beginning their years from a distance, Newsom said the state must ensure students and teachers are prepared for prolonged periods of online learning. That includes bridging a so-called digital divide and addressing educational inequities in schools.
Statewide requirements for distance learning include providing access to devices and connectivity for all students as well as daily live interactions between teachers and students and “challenging” assignments that compare to what students would be doing in an in-person setting.
“We just don’t want people to take their lectures and videotape them and provide them online,” he said. “By the way, you can just go to YouTube and get that in every subject matter that has been debated since the beginning of mankind.
“This has to be a much more interactive process, where we want to bring our students into the screen and (be) truly engaged peer-to-peer, not just the interaction of a teacher.”
Discussing school challenges Friday along with Newsom were State Superintendent of Public Education Tony Thurmond, ex-Democratic presidential candidate and Newsom adviser Tom Steyer and Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the state’s board of education.
Thurmond credited the state’s students, parents, teachers and school administrators for “leaning in” to meet the challenges and the ever-changing circumstances of the pandemic.
“Our parents and students and educators are constantly adapting,” he said. “The beginning of school is a time that is both exciting and filled with anxiety. I would say that has amounted to a higher level now because so much has gone into preparation for months … but the pandemic changes, so we have to change the guidance.”
Such a change could come to the county as early as Aug. 28 if it returns numbers Friday with a case count under 100 for every 100,000 residents. If that is the case, the county then comes off the state’s watchlist and a new 14-day clock begins for when districts can consider reopening for in-person instruction, Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s public health director said Thursday.
Local districts have released a multitude of reopening plans, most of which come in phases and are linked to guidance by government officials based on the ability to limit the spread of the virus.
Some already are preparing for the possibility, too. The Poway Unified School District, the county’s third-largest system, which previously had announced it would only conduct distance learning through the end of the year, reversed course Thursday after board members voted unanimously to consider in-person instruction before the year ends.
But for those districts not presently considering a return to campuses, Steyer said residents in the state — primarily minority and low-income families — “are without quality internet service.” The state’s Digital Divide Task Force has been working with a number of public and private entities including internet service providers to help bridge that gap, he said.
Steyer called on internet providers to boost outreach on affordable plan offerings, to deploy “near-term connectivity solutions” to residents and to help low-income families remain connected.
“We want a more fair, more resilient and more inclusive economy in the 21st century, starting with ensuring everyone has access to the tools they need to succeed,” he said. “We know that under no circumstance can we, the adults, fail our children. We cannot take no for an answer.”