The State Of California: Opening The Next School Year Early

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom stunned the world of California education when he announced that the school year could begin early after he begins to relax the state’s shelter-in-place order. Many parents, teachers, and school district officials are scrambling to figure out how that would work and how it would be implemented.

While many around the nation are wondering if there will be school or if distance learning will still be done over zoom, here in California Gov. Newsom mused about not only reopening schools but getting a jumpstart on the academic year.

"We are considering the prospect of an even earlier school year into the fall, certainly as late July, early August," Gov. Newsom said.

The governor said his reasoning is that so many students are not learning enough remotely, at some not at all if they don’t have access to a computer or WiFi at home.

"If we can maybe start up the school year a little earlier, that would help close that gap a little bit," Gov. Newsom said.

It’s been a little over a week since the governor floated that idea and many questions still remain.

Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, President of the California State Board of Education, joined KCBS Radio's "The State of California" to dig deeper into the uncertainty facing the next academic year.

What is the current thinking on when and how to start the next academic year?

It’s going to be a local decision about the start of school, in terms of physical starting. There are a number of districts that would like to offer summer school, in physical proximity if they can, and that’s a health determination. There are others that are talking about starting the school year earlier than they might otherwise have for some students, if not all students, but that will be locally determined.

There are health considerations that will vary county by county. The governor has put forward a set of criteria that has to be met in terms of the decrease in cases, the decrease in ICU and hospitalization, and the availability of testing and tracking for the start up for both businesses and schools

How critical is it to get kids back into a physical classroom?

Everyone is eager to get back to physical school. Kids want to see their friends and teachers, teachers want to see their kids, parents want to be able to go back to work without having to worry whether their kids are being taken care of, all of that is true. We do have some places where distance learning is working well, it’s highly variable across the state. There are districts nearby that I’ve been in touch with where 99% of the kids are online attending classes through Zoom or Google Hangout(s), and teachers are reaching out to kids who have additional needs and they are doing relatively well.

There are also places where we still have many kids lacking connectivity and devices where they are doing packets of homework, and certainly learning something, but we’re concerned that the digital divide is creating a bigger equity gap.

Will that equity gap be more noticeable once kids get back to the classroom?

Yes, we’re going to want to be sure there’s both a diagnostic assessment of where kids are with their learning, but also an assessment of the experiences they’ve had. There are many kids feeling trauma, illness of family members, unemployment of family members during this period of time. We’re going to need to wrap around them, both with social and emotional supports, but also with learning support.

Are teachers and teachers unions willing to go along with an earlier start?

Every district will take up those conversations. There are places where those conversations had already begun, in terms of the possibility of summer school. There are people that are eager to do that and it’s been worked out. It will happen in some communities either online through distance learning or physically, depending on what the health conditions are. 

There are places that have begun the conversation about starting school early for some kids, if not all kids. We’re all anxiously monitoring the health indicators county by county to see what will happen.

What’s most important is that we now begin to think about learning as a blended experience, with a combination of technology and physical connectedness throughout summer and fall, and winter perhaps, because it’s likely that schools may also physically open and then have to close down again. We need a continuous approach to learning. We need to focus on solving the digital divide and I know that the Governor and others, myself, the State Superintendent are all working on that so that we can begin to have a more fluid approach to ensuring the prospect of learning, even if the place of learning differs from time to time.