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California Lawmakers Divided Over Future of Virtual Learning

As the state legislature begins negotiations over next year’s budget, educators and elected officials are discussing whether to keep remote learning as an option once everyone goes back to school in the fall.

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e.Republic/David Kidd
(TNS) — Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, have been emphatic that public schools in California must reopen for full-time, in-person learning this fall.

But that push has inspired a new debate in Sacramento: Should they create an exception for students who prefer to stay remote or who learn better outside the classroom?

The issue is dividing some lawmakers and educators as the Legislature wades into negotiations over a new state budget that could determine what, if any, amount of distance learning will be funded for schools.

Beyond the fall academic term, this decision also could reshape how the state defines public education for years to come. Distance learning, instead of an emergency solution during a deadly pandemic, could be embedded as a fixture of California's schools if advocates get their way.

"You learn best if you're in a classroom," said Assembly Member Patrick O'Donnell, a Democrat from Long Beach who chairs the Education Committee. "But I'm also recognizing that the world around us has changed forever."

State law requires school districts to provide students with a set amount of instructional time with a teacher present, typically about five hours per day. During the coronavirus pandemic, California waived that law and allowed teachers to fill instructional minutes with live on-screen sessions and at-home assignments.

Most school districts in California now have reopened for students who choose to come back in person, with the option to continue at home available in most cases.

About 55% of public school students are still learning remotely, according to an analysis by EdSource. That number includes students in districts that haven't reopened, but the vast majority live in districts that have resumed in-classroom learning at least part time.

It's clear some parents aren't comfortable sending their kids back to school campuses, said state Sen. Connie Leyva, a Democrat from Chino ( San Bernardino County) who chairs the Education Committee. While it's clear most students learn better in a classroom, she said, districts need to offer alternatives.

"This is all of our first pandemic, so we have to be willing to be a little bit flexible," Leyva said. "Distance learning should be extended into the fall and possibly further."

California's waiver that allowed for distance learning expires June 30, so legislators have little time left to make what could end up being a far-reaching decision.

The demand to continue virtual learning faces fierce opposition from some politicians and parents. They say many students have suffered academically and emotionally while away from their teachers and peers.

They are demanding state officials set strict limits on when or how distance learning — or hybrid models — could be used. They do not want to see a repeat of the past year, where some schools reopened in the fall while others remained online for months longer.

Research shows disadvantaged students falling further behind their peers with pandemic distance learning, often due to unequal technology access or family circumstances.

A survey last month by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that 86% of adults and 83% of public school parents are concerned that students are losing ground academically during the pandemic.

In addition, health experts say they are seeing a surge of young people seeking emergency mental health services, given the lack of social interaction and stress.

Newsom's office said the state's success in slowing the coronavirus — with the lowest transmission rate in the country and more than 31 million vaccine shots administered to people 16 and over — has paved the way for schools to return to normal.

"Due to this significant progress, Governor Newsom expects schools to be fully reopened for 100% in-person instruction in the fall," a spokesperson said in an email to The Chronicle.

Assembly Member Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat who chairs the Budget Committee, has urged the Legislature to let the waiver that enabled a year of distance learning expire. He said the sluggish return to in-person learning has siphoned students away from public schools, which lost more than 160,000 students amid the pandemic.

Districts "should be more focused on what type of education they're providing for their students," Ting said. "If they're providing a strong education, every family will flock back. There's no question."

The push to extend at least the option for distance learning comes both from educators and administrators. Options could include new online-only academies or hybrid models, where some students spend limited time on campus.

Alameda County Superintendent L.K. Monroe said the majority of students can expect to be back in classrooms, but districts should consider at least partial distance learning for families who want it and for students who learn better in the remote environment.

"I see no reason why the fall should not have us back to normal with an option or two," Monroe said. "There is no unified district superintendent who does not want to come back to school as 'close to normal' in the fall."

Some educators and school officials want the state to go further, to fundamentally reconsider its public education model by permanently extending remote options.

Such a move would be "a turn toward a service orientation and away from the industrial-era model of education that is not well suited for many of today's families," said Troy Flint, a spokesperson for the California School Boards Association, which supports continued distance learning.

He added, "it's critical that we use this opportunity to rethink and transform a system that isn't serving all students well."

Some teachers also are on board. Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, one of the state's largest educator unions, said virtual learning makes sense for a small subset of middle and high-school students who performed better at home during the pandemic.

"We need to meet the students where they are. We need to meet the families where they are," he said. "We need individualized education."

Supporters say distance learning also prepares students for the world they will encounter after graduation, particularly as many employers are vowing to keep workers remote, pandemic or not.

O'Donnell, the Education Committee chair in the Assembly, said because online learning isn't going away, the Legislature should focus on how to "professionalize it." California already has about 300 online-only charter schools serving students who are signed up for independent study. O'Donnell has proposed a bill, AB1316, that would require such schools to use credentialed teachers and face more stringent auditing requirements.

"Anyone, regardless of educational attainment, can open an online charter school," he said. "It's the Wild West; there are no requirements."

But the push to end distance learning often has been driven by parents.

Megan Bacigalupi, a Oakland mother and organizer with Open Schools CA, said she fears expanding the state waiver for remote learning could give districts an excuse to not reopen classrooms in the fall.

Bacigalupi said she quit her job as an attorney in March to help school her two boys, a kindergartner and a second-grader in the Oakland Unified School District, at home. Her second grader has dyslexia and hates learning on a computer screen, she said.

"Absent some clear guidance from the state, we've got this piecemeal situation across California," Bacigalupi said. "Districts really missed an opportunity to do what was right for kids."

©2021 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.