On Tuesday night, Governor Newsom spoke of the prospect of months, not weeks, of school closure during a press conference and on Wednesday signed additional executive orders suspending testing and flexing additional provisions of the state open meetings laws. On Wednesday morning, various state agencies unveiled reams of guidance on a broad range of topics, while leaving many key questions unanswered. Many of the unanswered questions surround Newsom’s executive order calling for continued school funding during COVID-19-related closures. This order also, however, called for schools to continue to provide various services and supports, leading many school leaders scratching their heads.
The Governor said a few things of specific interest to schools during his press conference Tuesday, including the following:
Late Tuesday, the California Department of Education (CDE) unveiled substantial amounts of additional guidance on several school closure-related topics, including the following:
Distance Learning. The Governor’s prior executive order (N-26-20) calling for continued state funding of schools during closures also implies that funding is contingent on schools continue “delivering high-quality educational opportunities to the extent feasible through, among other options, distance learning and/or independent study.”
Though many charter schools have been offering online and distance forms of instruction for decades, most traditional district-run schools and many charter schools have little experience with these modes of instruction. To help with the transition, the new guidance provides a virtual “crash course” in distance learning. It lays out key considerations, raises various equity and access concerns, and provides a few examples of schools offering such instruction. It also includes three appendices that (1) provide links to other resources, (2) offer lessons from practitioners, and (3) address how to design an online course.
The guidance emphasizes the need to ensure equitable access to special education, English learner, and low-income students. While it offers a few practical suggestions, it ducks the massive threshold issue that has frozen many schools and districts in their tracks: Federal law requires that these non-traditional forms of instruction be equally accessible to students with disabilities and that they provide the same opportunities, including providing special education as well as related services (e.g., speech and occupational therapy, etc.), to disabled students.
Ensuring access and providing services online and at a distance for special education students is a daunting practical and logistical challenge. It presumably requires amending or otherwise modifying federally-mandated individualized education plans (IEPs) for special needs students. The federal and state laws governing IEPs, however, are very detailed, making it impossible to amend vast numbers of IEPs on the fly as schools attempt to shift to online/distance modes in real time. While this week’s special legislation (SB 117) waives some state deadlines, the underlying federal deadlines and service requirements remain in full force and federal officials have indicated zero flexibility on point.
The challenge is so huge that some schools have opted for a “hard” close, providing zero instructional services or supports to any students, anticipating that by fully closing they will avoid triggering special education mandates. Governor Newsom’s staff and other state officials are struggling to advise schools on how to proceed between the apparent rock and hard place.
School Meals. The Governor’s executive order (N-26-20) also calls for schools to “provide school meals in noncongregate settings through the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option, two options for providing meals during summer break period. This expectation has generated concern among schools that do not operate the federally-funded summer meal programs. The new guidance notes that “LEAs are not required to start a summer food service program, but we would expect LEAs to meet this moment by implementing the programs to do what they can to meet the needs of their students if schools are closed.”
Child Care/Supervision. The Governor’s executive order (N-26-20) also calls for schools to “arrange for, to the extent practicable, supervision for students during ordinary school hours.” The new guidance reiterates this expectation, and states that schools should “develop a plan for ensuring that students are supervised during school hours.” This doesn’t necessarily mean starting and operating a childcare program, but the guidance notes that schools should “consider allowing their school sites for use as critical pop-up childcare programs for working families in need of care,” “partner[ing] with their local resource and referral agency to connect families in need of care,” and includes phone numbers and internet links to lists of these referral agencies. It also suggests providing “families with a list of known local programs that remain open for services,” collaborating with their local childcare planning and provider organizations, etc.
This guidance also notes various options parents may have under state and federal employment laws regarding sick leave, vacation, Paid Family Leave, etc., that affect employers of various sizes. For schools whose teachers and other employees need childcare, the guidance notes that the Department of Support Services has an emergency waiver option that can allow for temporary childcare facilities.
CSDC strongly suggests that all schools review this guidance and monitor it for promised updates.
State officials, including State Superintendent Tony Thurmond, State Board President Linda Darling-Hammond, and the Governor’s Chief Deputy Cabinet Secretary Ben Chida conducted a webinar Tuesday morning. The webinar reviewed the guidance summarized above, offered a few additional snippets of information, and acknowledged that many important questions remain unanswered.
Superintendent Thurmond decreed that “no school district needs to worry about funding,” that student testing should be suspended, and committed to addressing demands by some teachers unions for double pay to teach during the COVID-19 crisis.
The Governor’s aide Chida urged school employers to “pay your workers,” emphasized the potentially-long nature of the crisis, noting “it’s going to be really dynamic” and said that “our North Star is to do what calls you to this work [as an educator,] and we’ll [state officials] have your back.”
Kristen Wright, Director of the California Department of Education’s Special Education Division, gave perhaps the most honest and credible remarks. She candidly acknowledged the lack of guidance on the thorny special education issues but emphasized that schools must ensure that distance and independent study must serve special needs students too.
Wright noted her own status as a credentialed teacher and parent of a special needs student who had no lesson plans prepared and limited experience in serving special needs through online and distant settings. She commended the many schools that are taking up the challenge and promised that a working group will help to develop additional supports and guidance. “We hear that you need guidance...do what you can,” Wright said, while emphasizing the need to also comply with mandates to serve special needs.
Notably, Wright appeared to be the only presenter who dared to utter the word “charter” during the entire webinar which otherwise was dominated by references to traditional districts and schools. The absence of references to charter schools is particularly deafening given the decades of experience by many charter schools in operating successful independent study, online, and distance learning programs. The irony and tragedy of AB 1505’s new moratorium on establishment of new nonclassroom-based charter schools couldn’t be stronger.
On March 18, 2020, the Governor signed yet another executive order withdrawing the prior March 12, 2020 order flexing the Brown Act and Bagley-Keene Act and replacing it with additional flexibility for public meetings to accommodate social distancing and stay-in-place directives.
Effective immediately, all requirements in both the Bagley-Keene Act and the Brown Act requiring the physical presence of the members of a governing board, the clerk to the board, or any other personnel of the body, or the public as a condition of participation in, or quorum for a public meeting, are now waived.
The specific requirements that are now suspended include:
The executive order further specifies that allowing members of the public to observe and address the governing body telephonically or otherwise electronically will satisfy in lieu of the usual requirement that members of the public be allowed to attend a meeting and offer public comment. The body does not need to make a physical location available for members of the public to observe, address, or comment on the meeting.
Consistent with the American with Disabilities Act, the governing body must still implement a procedure for swiftly resolving requests for reasonable modification or accommodation from individuals with disabilities through the teleconference. When resolving doubts over interpretation, the body shall defer “in favor of accessibility.” The body must advertise that accessibility procedure each time notice is given of the means by which members of the public may observe the meeting and offer public comment.
The order otherwise continues the usual advance meeting notice requirements of the open meetings laws, including posting the agenda for each meeting according to the timeframes outlined in the Brown Act and the Bagley-Keene Act. Additionally, the notice must inform the public how to observe the meeting and offer public comment (presumably including online access codes, dial-in numbers, etc.).
If there are any changes to the timeframe or the manner in which public comment is to be given, the body must post that information using “the most rapid means of communication available at the time.” This must include the body’s website among other methods of communication.
The above changes only apply where social distancing has been imposed by health officials and state and local bodies are urged to use sound discretion and to make reasonable efforts to adhere as closely as reasonably possible to the provisions of the Bagley-Keene Act and the Brown Act.