The anxiety level of California school superintendents is rising as they prepare to reopen school not just for students physically returning but also for an unknown number choosing to learn from home.
The Legislature said districts must provide those students with an education, too, and recrafted the provisions for independent study, an alternative for students who need to do their academics outside the classroom.
Originally designed to accommodate schedules of child actors and aspiring Olympic athletes or for victims of bullying, it's now an option for students of all grades fearful of contracting Covid-19.
The new independent study law, in the trailer bill elaborating on this year's state budget, is complex and was designed by legislative staff without a hearing. Most districts have had less than six weeks to prepare. And, with the rapid spread of the delta variant and cases of Covid school infections in the news, superintendents are worried they could be swamped with applications for independent study by parents who then become dissatisfied with what they signed up for.
“Two weeks ago, superintendents were saying the demand was low. Now they're saying they suspect there could be a huge increase,” said Barrett Snider, who represents independent studies programs as a partner with Capitol Advisors, a Sacramento school consulting firm. “The Anticipating a need to hire additional teachers when they’re already having trouble replacing those who have retired is creating stress, Barrett said. “They're pulling their hair out.”
In the first week of August, in the Kern County High School School District, the largest high school district in the state, only 25 parents had signed up for an expanded independent study program, But school principals fear that once they explain the program, as many as 5,000 students will enroll in independent study by the time schools reopen on Aug. 18, said Dean McGee, associate superintendent of educational services and innovative programs.
Other California districts are projecting 5%t to 8% of students choosing the option, fewer in those districts that are discouraging it or doing little to promote its availability. Some parents may enroll and transfer back to in-person instruction after discovering independent study isn't working for their kids or for them, since it will demand more home supervision. If the Delta variant wanes or vaccines are approved for children under 12, families may desert independent study in droves, creating potential challenges integrating them back into school.
Few districts are in the position of Kern, which has developed a virtual curriculum of prerecorded lessons, Google Docs and YouTube videos. It has been planning for months to open Kern Learn Extension for independent study in every school. Even so, coordinating a program that can grow and shrink based on enrollment swings on short notice will not be easy, McGee said.
At the other end of the spectrum are small school districts, lacking the administrative staff and flexibility of big districts. They're especially uneasy about the potential financial penalties that include a loss of student funding if they don't comply with the law’s regulations and extensive documentation requirements.
The biggest challenge, said Helio Brasil, superintendent of 700-student Keyes Union School District in the Central Valley, is finding teachers to oversee students who decline to return, whether that's due to health concerns or opposition to masking requirements.
“Our biggest issue is hiring. We are getting no applicants,” Brasil said. “This adds one more layer of staffing, and we were already struggling with that.”
Fully aware that many parents were displeased with the quality of distance and hybrid learning and angry that many districts delayed reopening schools last year, the Legislature let the law authorizing remote learning expire in June. Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislators made clear in the budget they passed in June that bringing back students to fully reopened schools is the priority.
Recognizing that health-compromised students and families also need an option, legislators gave them the choice of independent study. Created decades ago to serve students unable to handle a regular schedule, independent study allows students with extenuating circumstances to study on their own, supervised by a teacher. They can do so as long they regularly turn in assignments, and the school thoroughly documents their progress.
In Assembly Bill 130, the budget trailer bill, the Legislature added safeguards to hold districts accountable for providing a rigorous program and staying in touch with students who stopped participating, as many did last year. Requirements include:
- School boards must adopt an independent study policy before school reopening;
- Parents must meet with school officials so they understand what they're signing up for. Every parent, student, supervising teacher and other educators directly involved must then sign a contract;
- High schools must provide all courses that a district offers for admission to the University of California and California State University, the A-G sequence;
- Districts must provide personal contact with every student; Transitional kindergarten to grade three: an opportunity for daily live instruction of unspecified length, whether with an entire class, small group or one-on-one conversation; For middle school, an opportunity for daily "live interaction," which could be wellness check-ins or progress reports, and weekly live instruction; for high school, an opportunity for live instruction at least weekly.
- Schools must have a “re-engagement” strategy for students who fail to attend three days in any week;
- Students who aren’t progressing or choose to leave independent study have a right to return to in-person instruction within five days;
- All students must be supervised by a credentialed teacher. The student/teacher ratio cannot exceed that of other district schools. For K-3 that's 24:1.
The rewritten independent study provisions in Assembly Bill 130 reflect a compromise between administrators chafing at additional regulations and paperwork and student advocates who argue the requirements should be more rigorous.
“We're disappointed at the infrequent live interaction for high school students, who research is showing have experienced trauma,” said Atasi Uppal, senior policy attorney at the National Center for Youth Law. “We need them to feel connected to school even if they have to choose the remote option for their own health and safety.”
As the name implies, independent study best serves those who thrive working on their own, at their own pace. Imposing daily contact and hours of instruction on a system not designed for it is an imperfect fit.
Jason Peplinski, superintendent of Simi Valley Unified, where many independent study students work in the film and TV industry, said the new requirements may not work for traditional independent study families and will likely disappoint new families expecting extensive teacher-led instruction. He and other superintendents are concerned that unhappy parents will turn to private schools or online charter schools.
That’s what Thia Gielow is doing for her eighth grade son, who had been attending a Waldorf charter school that isn’t offering him remote learning; under AB 130, charter schools aren't required to provide independent study. Independent study in her home district, Saddleback Valley Unified in Mission Viejo, in Orange County, offers little live instruction and contact with teachers, so her son will enroll in California Connections Academy, an online charter school that operates in 32 counties in California and is tied to Pearson, a multinational publishing and education company.
To satisfy parents and deter defections to online charters, Arturo Valdez, deputy superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said he recommended to districts that they provide more virtual instruction than AB 130 requires. “If you do the minimum, you will have problems even if it meets the legal parameters,” he said.
Several dozen school districts, such as Pajaro Valley Unified in Santa Cruz County, had created separate virtual academies as separate schools before the pandemic and are in a position to expand them. In Contra Costa County, Pleasanton Unified had been planning Pleasanton Virtual Academy for more than a year and will open Aug. 11. As of last week, 241 students were enrolled, and the number could grow to 400 out of 14,000 students, said Superintendent David Haglund. Every grade covering all subjects, including high school, will be offered. Credentialed teachers, some on part-time assignments, will supervise students taking online courses through Edgenuity, a content provider. The district will encourage high school students to take A-G courses through Las Positas College, a community college.
In Los Angeles Unified, the state's largest district, 10,280 students -- about 2 percent of students -- had signed up for independent study hours before an Aug. 6 deadline. They will enroll in the City of Angels school,which provides online and independent study programs. Elementary school students will have 3 hours daily of live instruction with a teacher. Secondary school students will have three 70-minute periods per day with at least 40 minutes of direct student-teacher time per period. Whenever students are not receiving direct instruction, they will work independently.
School districts can apply for a waiver from the mandate to offer independent study this year if it would create “an unreasonable fiscal burden.” That standard may be difficult for districts to meet, given the surfeit of one-time state funding and federal aid they've received. Pleasanton already has 16 students from neighboring districts signed up.
The California Department of Education is soon expected to offer an extensive FAQ to answer questions and clarify the requirements. Some superintendents are calling for big changes to Assembly Bill 130 when the Legislature considers cleanup language to the trailer bill later this month, but that's not likely to happen, said Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee.
“While the state anticipates individual or small group quarantines being needed during the school year, these changes to independent study ensure that students still have access to quality education,” he said in a statement. “State public health leaders remain confident that widespread school closures will not be necessary in the coming school year, and we do not anticipate major changes (to the trailer bill) when session reconvenes.”
John Fensterwald is a reporter with EdSource, a partner with Bay City News. EdSource writers Sydney Johnson and Betty Marquez Rosales contributed to this article.