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Why A Few Big SoCal School Districts Are Sticking With Online Classes Until Summer

A student sits in front of a laptop for a distance learning lesson.
A San Bernardino City Unified School District student sits in front of a laptop for a distance learning lesson.
(Courtesy of the San Bernardino City Unified School District)
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Some Local School Districts Have Opted Not To Reopen Before Summer

More than eight out of every 10 California public school campuses have already reopened. It looks increasingly likely that in the fall, the state will require schools to offer full-time, in-person instruction.

Headlines like these make this next fact easy to forget: A number of local schools, including two of Southern California’s largest school districts, have chosen to remain in distance learning mode until the start of summer.

Leaders of San Bernardino City Unified — the region’s third-largest district after Los Angeles and Long Beach — decided last November to ride out the academic year in online-only mode. It has stuck by that decision ever since, including after California lawmakers in March dangled a $2 billion incentive package for districts to reopen campuses.

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“I don’t know if the state could have done anything different — aside from supporting [reopening] earlier in the process,” said Assistant Superintendent Rachel Monárrez.

Wrenching Decisions

San Bernardino’s not alone. Most students in Santa Ana Unified — the area’s sixth-largest district — also won’t return to campuses this spring. Nor will students in several smaller districts such as Paramount Unified, Montebello Unified and Hacienda La Puente Unified.

The vast majority of students in all of these school systems are both Latino and lower-income, two demographics that have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think we have a big challenge to convince parents to come back, to understand that it is safe,” said Julie Marsh, a professor at USC’s Rossier School of Education, “particularly if some of these students … are not necessarily thriving in online learning.”

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 Cars line up at a San Bernardino City Unified School District meal distribution.
Cars line up at a San Bernardino City Unified School District meal distribution.
(Courtesy of the San Bernardino City Unified School District)

As much as these school systems’ choices reflect reluctance among some parents, many parents ardently support returning to campus right away. In Santa Ana, a district survey showed 55% of parents favored a “hybrid” reopening in which students would return to campus part-time.

“We see our kids, every day, struggle to find the motivation to wake up, to log on and to finish,” said parent Lucy Solorzano, who called in to a March 23 Santa Ana school board meeting audibly upset. “So many of our kids are failing. How many of our students are not going to graduate?”

Santa Ana Unified administrators instead planned to reopen in-person “learning labs” to smaller, targeted groups of high-need students.

Superintendent Jerry Almendarez declined through a spokesperson to comment for this story; the spokesperson cited the “divisive” politics surrounding the administration’s decision.

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Why 'Turn Over The Apple Cart' Again?

When Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the legislature’s school reopening package on March 5, San Bernardino City Unified was just two weeks out from its spring break — which itself was two weeks long.

Assistant Superintendent Monárrez said that meant the earliest the district could have realistically reopened was mid-April — leaving only six weeks before the San Bernardino schools let out for summer at the end of May.

The timing of the state aid wasn’t San Bernardino’s only concern. At the time, Monárrez said there were too many question marks around whether vaccines would be available to teachers. Officials were uncertain the state would provide enough money to screen students regularly for COVID-19. Guidance about how many students can be on-campus at once was in flux.

District officials also weighed the health risks facing a vulnerable population. In San Bernardino City Unified, 90% of students are either low-income, English learners, or in the foster system. The district serves many households where grandparents, parents and children live under one roof — and it’s not safe to assume all have access to healthcare, Monárrez said.

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Plus, California lawmakers didn’t only approve incentives to reopen right away. Assembly Bill 86 included another $4 billion for all schools to spend on pandemic relief — including, among other things, expanded summer programming.

“Rather than turning the apple cart over again,” Monárrez said, “what we’re doing is preparing for a robust summer program.”

San Bernardino’s summer program will be optional — but it will include in-person, on-campus instruction. So far, Monárrez said, more than one-quarter of the district’s students have expressed interest.

Corrected May 19, 2021 at 3:24 PM PDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Santa Ana Unified School District Superintendent Jerry Almendarez's name. We regret the error. The piece was also updated to more clearly attribute the district spokesperson as the source who called the politics around the issue of reopening "divisive."