Governor's early school start caught top California educators by surprise

When Gov. Gavin Newsom said schools could start as early as July at his Tuesday news conference to make up for lost learning during the coronavirus shutdown, his announcement appeared to catch California’s top schools official by surprise.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said “some major questions” still need to be answered. “First and foremost: Can this be done in a way that protects the health and safety of our students, teachers, and school staff?

He added: “We all heard for the first time today the idea of schools reopening as early as July or August.”

The state also doesn’t have the power to order districts to reopen; changes will need to be worked out between local districts and teachers unions.

At the same time California educators grapple with how to reopen, the state’s more than 1,000 school districts are expected to face budget cuts as tax revenue tumbles due to job losses and business closures.

State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond told lawmakers Tuesday that schools need $100 million to purchase 400,000 computers and 290,000 internet hotspots to help “close the divide and maintain access for students.” She said most of California’s 6.2 million students do have access to technology.

A lot of questions remain about the timeline and structure for schools that reopen, decisions that will be made district-by-district. Many districts already start the school year in August.

Whatever the timeline, school will likely look radically different, officials say.

Among the scenarios Newsom has previously raised: staggered start times to limit the number of students in a school at one time; changes to recess, lunch and other group gatherings; and a hybrid of classroom and online learning.

One idea would be to keep students with their previous year’s teachers, even temporarily, said Darling-Hammond.

“Teachers can teach more effectively when they know their students well and students learn more effectively in an environment of trust and belonging,” she said. She said some experts have said it could last for a quarter “before passing students on to the next grade level teacher.”

It also isn’t clear if an earlier start will mean a longer school year or a school year that ends sooner than usual. California Federation of Teachers President Jeff Freitas said it’s possible the time could be made up if schools need to close again for a break in fall or winter because of a second surge of coronavirus.