‘Please, Daddy, no more Zoom school.’: California leaders reject distance learning

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LOS ANGELES — The Omicron surge is depleting California teachers and keeping students home in unprecedented numbers, but political leaders aren't yet willing to broach the most obvious alternative: distance learning.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democratic leaders who allowed school shutdowns early in the pandemic are holding firm on keeping classrooms open. They've had support from the California Teachers Association despite some educators on the ground saying that working conditions are untenable due to staff shortages. And school districts are going to extreme lengths to keep students in classrooms, pulling retired teachers off the sidelines and recruiting office staff — at times even superintendents — to teach lessons.

It's a dramatic turn for a state that once had the nation's longest pandemic closures.

“I'm very, very sensitive to this, the learning opportunities that are lost because kids are not safely in school, the challenges of going online,” Newsom said when asked this month about distance learning. “My son, we had fits and starts, he's in and out of school, said, ‘Please, Daddy, no more Zoom school.’”

“I hear that echoed all throughout the state of California,” he continued. “It's really a critical, top priority for us to keep the schools open.”

The Sacramento City Unified School District released a statement Friday calling on local residents to "Sub-in and be a hero" by getting an emergency substitute teacher credential. Palo Alto schools have turned to parent volunteers for food service, office assistance and other on-campus jobs.

Nationally, the memory of extended school closures has made the public wary of distance learning, according to a Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll conducted in late December. The poll found that about 66 percent of respondents — including 52 percent of Democrats — opposed shifting schools online. California parents were particularly beleaguered, given that schools generally didn't reopen until March or April in the state, more than a full year after they shut down.

“Had schools been more responsive to reopening as soon as we had real, good data, it wouldn't be a problem right now for them to go remote for for a week or two,” Michael Creedon, whose children attend the Davis Joint Unified School District, said in an interview. “But they squandered that trust. It's that institutional inertia, right? Once it closes, it's really hard to get it to open back up.”

There are significant Covid differences compared to a year ago when nearly all California schools were closed. Most teachers and teenagers have been vaccinated, and school-age children ages 5-11 gained access to a Covid vaccine in November. While Omicron spreads faster than any previous variant, parents and political leaders are mindful that it has resulted in less severe illness for most people, especially the vaccinated.

The refusal of Democratic leaders to broach the idea of remote learning extends beyond California’s borders to cities like Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, where politicians have opposed union calls for temporary virtual lessons.

It starts at the top. President Joe Biden has stressed the need for children to remain in the classroom, arguing that in-person learning can be done safely and that his administration has provided districts with resources necessary to keep schools running. The White House earlier this month appeared to side with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in her battle with the teachers union.

"We're not going back to lockdowns," Biden said Wednesday. "We're not going back to closing schools."

Two weeks since winter break, however, the unified Democratic position is starting to show cracks as Omicron sends staff and student absences to unprecedented levels. A handful of big-city mayors, like Michelle Wu in Boston, have said they’re willing to consider short-term shifts to distance learning amid staff shortages. New York City Mayor Eric Adams indicated last week he was open to a temporary remote option, though he dialed that back Tuesday, saying he would only allow that for students isolating at home with Covid.

Meanwhile, a Harris poll conducted last week found that 70 percent of respondents who identified as Democrats said schools should move remote to prevent Covid exposure.

None of the leaders in California’s major cities or state departments, however, have so far shown that they’re willing to consider a shift to at-home lesson plans as an option.

The staffing realities on the ground in many California districts have been compounded by the slow delivery of promised rapid tests and confusion about whether schools that shut their doors will still receive funding. That has forced superintendents and school boards to start considering the possibility of short-term moves to remote programs.

The Hayward Unified School District became the first in the state to test those bounds as it switched to distance learning for a week after more than 300 teacher absences and 500 positive tests among its roughly 20,000 students. The district resumed in-person learning on Tuesday.

April Oquenda, president of the Hayward school board, said it was unclear if the district had the authority to close entirely and instead decided to give parents the option to sign up for independent study or send their students to learning hubs, where they’d receive lessons on their laptops under staff supervision.

George Drapeau, the parent of a Hayward kindergartner, called the district's plan “painful,” but said it was “absolutely the right decision” based on the testing data. He said Hayward teachers and students didn’t receive their rapid tests from the state until the semester had started, and that most parents supported the move to remote as case numbers started to rise.

“We didn't have very good data last year, and so we over-relied on risk avoidance and shut down all schools for months,” he said in an interview. “This year, we have the ability to get much more useful information faster, cheaper and more frequently, so we don't have to shut down for months at a time.”

Hayward officials acknowledged that their move might have cost them $2.5 million a day in funding if the California Department of Education determines it was in violation of state law. A bill passed last year threatens to punish districts that don’t offer students access to in-person learning — and it was written that way to dissuade districts from using virtual instruction on a wide scale.

The switch to independent study gave the Hayward district time to distribute rapid tests and N95 masks to all staff members, said Mercedes Faraj, president of the Hayward teachers union, which supported the move. Faraj said no district or union wants to move away from in-person learning, but argued that a line needs to be drawn to protect students and staff. She said state leaders should provide clear thresholds for how many staff and student absences should trigger campus closures.

In Chicago, teachers returned to classrooms last week after Lightfoot agreed to metrics that would shut individual schools if teacher absences or student cases reach a certain level.

Still, local and California health officials say the situation does not warrant campus closures. Alameda County education officials advised Hayward against its weeklong shutdown, but Oquenda said the board approved the plan with the hope that state officials would offer leeway. The Milpitas Unified School District announced a similar approach this month to relieve staffing pressures, but reversed course after Santa Clara County officials said it didn’t have the authority to do so.

Troy Flint, chief information officer for the California School Boards Association, said that these sorts of scenarios are likely to increase in the coming weeks until the Omicron spread slows dramatically. He said CSBA is in contact with districts that could see staffing shortages nearing 30 percent and expects school leaders to make a choice between going remote or closing entirely.

“We're talking to schools from all over the state, all different sizes, urban, suburban and rural and they are just trying to hang on,” Flint said. “They're not looking for excuses to go to remote learning, they're barely surviving."

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