SACRAMENTO — California’s two largest public school districts said Monday that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers.
The Los Angeles and San Diego unified school districts, which together enroll some 825,000 students, are the largest so far in the country to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August.
More than a third of California’s coronavirus cases are in Los Angeles County, and San Diego County has had 18 community outbreaks over the past week, more than double the state’s acceptable threshold.
“There’s a public health imperative to keep schools from becoming a petri dish,” said Austin Beutner, the school superintendent in Los Angeles.
The joint announcement came as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos continued to press the Trump administration’s case to quickly reopen public schools, not only for students’ social and emotional development, but also to allow parents to return to work fully.
In television appearances over the weekend, she downplayed both the virus and the school reopening guidelines issued by the administration’s own public health officials. “I think the go-to needs to be kids in school, in person, in the classroom, because we know for most kids, that’s the best environment for them,” Ms. DeVos said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
She also reiterated the administration’s stance that guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deeming in-person classes the “highest risk” option were not mandatory. President Trump threatened last week to cut off federal funding to schools that did not reopen their campuses.
The recommendations from the president and Ms. DeVos have been disputed by many public health officials and teachers. On Friday, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and AASA, the School Superintendents Association issued a statement saying that reopening recommendations should be “based on evidence, not politics.”
The groups added that “we should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.”
In the Los Angeles and San Diego districts’ joint statement, they noted that research is incomplete and recommendations have been contradictory.
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But “one fact is clear,” the statement said. “Those countries that have managed to safely reopen schools have done so with declining infection rates and on-demand testing available. California has neither. The skyrocketing infection rates of the past few weeks make it clear the pandemic is not under control.”
Mr. Beutner, whose district is the nation’s second largest, said in an interview Sunday that schools “can’t just tap our heels together” like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” and “pretend it’s appropriate to bring people back” despite “skyrocketing” rates of new infections.
California’s death toll from the coronavirus rose to more than 7,000 over the weekend, with 7.5 percent or more of test results coming back positive over the past two weeks, even as testing has ramped up to more than 100,000 tests a day. The state watch list of counties where the virus has surged, which has flagged Los Angeles and San Diego counties, includes nearly half of the 58 counties in the state.
For the time being, Mr. Beutner said, the Los Angeles district will maintain the online instruction it has been providing since its 700,000 students and 75,000 employees were sent home in mid-March. He said the decision will be revisited when local infection rates have been sufficiently lowered and public health authorities have implemented adequate testing and contact tracing systems.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we’ve got to make sure everyone’s safe.”
With Covid-19 case counts differing greatly across the country, there is no single approach to how major urban systems, like those in Los Angeles and San Diego, will operate this fall.
New York City and Seattle hope to provide several days a week of in-person learning, with students working online from home the rest of the time. That hybrid model is emerging as popular nationwide, among both large and small districts.
Chicago, the nation’s third-biggest system, has not yet announced its plan.
Nashville originally planned to open five days a week, but rolled that back on July 9, citing the rising local number of coronavirus cases. Students in the district are now expected to continue learning from home at least until Labor Day.
The Miami-Dade County Public Schools are currently asking parents to choose between full-time remote learning and a “schoolhouse model,” which would be in-person two to five days a week and online the rest of the time, depending on the number of students enrolled in a building and the amount of space available for social distancing.
All the plans, district leaders say, are subject to change at a moment’s notice, as public health guidance shifts or as governors make statewide decisions about whether to allow schools to open.
Indeed, with the pandemic still raging across much of the country, it has become clear that improving the quality of online learning will be at least as important in the coming months as dealing with the logistics of reopening physical schools.
Initial research showed that during the first round of school closures, American children were set back, on average, by 7 months in their reading and math learning, with children from low-income families, and students of color, experiencing even bigger losses.
The announcement by the two districts was expected to have statewide impact in California. Several other large districts, including Santa Clara, Oakland and San Bernardino, have already announced that they will stick, at least for the foreseeable future, with full-time remote instruction.
In March, after a similar announcement, the ensuing statewide cascade of school closures in other districts ended with more than 6 million public school students being sent home.
The decision also comes as districts throughout the state are confronting resistance from California’s politically powerful teachers’ unions. Like many districts, both Los Angeles and San Diego have been engaged in tense negotiations over pandemic working conditions.
The Los Angeles teachers’ union called last week for campuses to remain closed and for learning to be fully remote when the district resumes classes on Aug. 18, saying Mr. Trump’s reopening push was part of a “dangerous, anti-science agenda.” In an informal survey released Friday of 18,000 United Teachers Los Angeles members, 83 percent agreed that campuses should not physically reopen.
And the state’s largest teachers’ union wrote a sharply worded letter last week to Gov. Gavin Newsom — a Democrat elected with their support — expressing concern “that politics are being played with the lives of children and the educators who serve them.”
“It is clear that communities and school districts have not come close to meeting the threshold for a safe return to in-person learning, even under a hybrid model,” the 310,000-member California Teachers Association wrote.
Some $13.5 billion went to K-12 education from the federal relief package passed in March by Congress. But education groups and school districts estimate that schools will need much more money to safely reopen, and with the economic impact of the pandemic having depleted many local and state budgets, it is unclear where it will come from.
As recently as late last week, leaders in San Diego Unified were promoting their plan to reopen five days a week, in person, for all students whose families chose that option. But the district had also warned that the health, sanitation and educational costs of reopening physical classrooms safely were so steep — a minimum of $90 million for the coming school year — that they would not be able to do so without a significant infusion of federal dollars.
At the same time, the district’s teachers’ union was arguing that reopening during an alarming increase in coronavirus cases was unwise, and would put teachers’ health at risk.
The superintendent, Cindy Marten, had been working with education leaders across the country to lobby the Senate to pass a second stimulus package for schools.
Ms. Marten said the district has not given up on the possibility of reopening physically if infection rates get down to a safe and manageable level, and even moved forward over the weekend with plans to purchase $11 million worth of masks and other protective equipment. But the state’s current infection levels, she said, “should make it clear to everyone that the virus is not under control.”
“School districts need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Ms. Marten said. “We must both plan for a physical reopening while taking measures to keep our communities safe.”