CA state superintendent: Distance learning is the safest move for most districts

Most California school districts are set to begin the fall semester in less than a month. As the state continues to see record coronavirus numbers, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond says distance learning is the right decision for much of the state if conditions don't change. 

“If schools had to open tomorrow, most of our districts would open in distance learning.”

Thurmond called for “an abundance of caution” as many of California’s 1,000 school districts finalize plans for the new school term. “In any place where there is uncertainty, we should proceed with caution. In many cases, that’s going to be opening in distance learning,” Thurmond said in a weekly media briefing held online.

However, there is no one-size-fits-all template for reopening schools, and classroom learning can still happen in counties or districts where it can be done safely, he said.

Many small, rural communities argue they shouldn’t have to comply with the same rules as big cities, where infection rates are higher, and Thurmond indicated Wednesday he agreed. “We have some counties in this state where the number of cases is actually quite low,” he said. “Schools in those counties will actually be able to open and, if they’re following the guidance that our experts have provided — hand washing, 6 feet of spacing, maintaining physical distance and of course, everyone wearing a face covering — we believe that those schools can open safely.”

California’s Department of Education released a detailed guide in early June for the safe reopening of schools. The guide laid out recommendations for taking temperature upon entering buses and schools, spacing out desks, cutting class sizes and rigorous cleaning of campuses and hand sanitizing for students and staff. But that was before California’s case count exploded. “Since we’ve issued our guidance, conditions have changed dramatically,” Thurmond said.

The Los Angeles and San Diego school districts, the two largest in California with a combined K-12 student population of about 720,000, announced Monday their school years will begin next month with distance learning because of rising coronavirus hospitalizations and infection rates. “We applaud the superintendents and school boards in Los Angeles and San Diego for making the decision to say, ‘Lets open ‘safely,’ ” Thurmond said.

LA and San Diego are the latest in a growing number of California school districts choosing to start the new term with digital learning amid strong concerns from teachers unions about the safety of staff on school campuses.

In an interview, President Trump railed against LA school officials calling the move, a "terrible decision." The White House continues to push for schools to fully reopen. "We want schools to be open and they will be open and they'll be open, I think, relatively on time, hopefully perfectly on time, most places," said President Trump as he left the White House Wednesday.

San Francisco, Oakland, Long Beach and San Bernardino districts are among the districts that already have said they will start off with distance learning. Some districts are considering a mix of distance learning and classroom instruction with few students in the room.

The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a new report recommending districts prioritize in-person classes for younger children and students with special needs, if it can be done safely. The report cites struggles wtih online learning for those two groups of students. 

The largest teachers' union in the state, California Teachers' Association, says schools cannot reopen until they're safe.

CTA says they need money from state and federal governments and additional training to close the "digital divide" for distance learning and to ensure the best outcomes. 

“In order to try and get the digital divide taken care of with broadband and when we do open it's going to be in the most safe environment we’re demanding," said CTA president Toby Boyd.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.