Most California Students to Begin School Year Learning From Home

Residents of East Los Angeles stand in line and wait in their cars to collect food donations outside James A. Garfield High School as part of the school district’s effort to support families struggling through the Covid-19 pandemic. (Courthouse News photo / Martin Macias Jr.)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — With school already underway in some parts of the state, California Governor Gavin Newsom estimated Friday that more than 5 million kids will start the year at home because over 90% of the state’s schools are shuttered due to the pandemic.

The father of four acknowledged starting the school year with distance learning is “suboptimal” but was necessary due to the persistent virus.

Hoping to smooth the in-home learning process for students, parents and teachers, Newsom said the state and philanthropists have provided over 73,000 laptops and 100,000 wireless internet hotspots since March. In addition, the state has dished out over $5 billion in federal pandemic relief to cash-strapped districts, including $475 million to Los Angeles Unified, $87 million to Fresno Unified and $44 million for Elk Grove, just outside Sacramento.

Rather than simply taping lessons, the state has issued guidelines to school districts requiring teachers to have daily interactions with students. Where applicable, educators must craft specialized lessons for students in homes where English is the second language and for special education students.

Newsom and State Superintendent Tony Thurmond said ensuring all students had the proper equipment to bridge the “digital divide” is paramount to making the 2020-21 school year a success.

“The most difficult circumstances that we will probably encounter in our lifetime,” Thurmond said of the challenge facing California families and schools.

Schools in counties listed on the state’s coronavirus watchlist are prohibited from opening, although individual elementary schools can apply for waivers.

Currently 38 counties making up over 95% of the state’s population are on the list, and are additionally banned from allowing dining and religious services except outdoors.

California on Friday became the first state to clear 600,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, a figure buoyed by the clearing of a backlog of hundreds of thousands of test results.

Despite the distinction of leading the nation in infections, Governor Gavin Newsom said the week’s daily case updates have been inflated by the since-fixed glitch within the state’s test clearinghouse, and that he was more concerned with improving trends in other areas.

Over the last two weeks, the number of people hospitalized due to Covid-19 has dropped 20% while the state’s positivity rate has decreased to 6.2%. Newsom said the trends show California is finally “moving in a positive direction” in its pandemic fight. 

“That’s an encouraging sign,” Newsom told reporters. “We need to see more stability, we need to see that line continue to bend in this direction.”

With 603,000 cases confirmed, California ranks first nationwide ahead of Florida (563,000), Texas (532,000) and New York (424,000), according to Johns Hopkins University. California has the third highest death toll with 11,000, behind New York (32,800) and New Jersey (15,900).

Friday’s briefing comes hours after another key member of the Newsom administration announced his resignation.

Late Thursday, Newsom’s office legislative liaison Anthony Williams will be leaving at the end of the legislative session. Williams helped guide the governor’s negotiations with the Legislature over the last two years and said he is leaving the role to be closer to his family in Southern California.

Williams’ exit extends a trend of turnover within the administration. Earlier this week the director of the California Department of Public Health quit amid a snafu involving the state’s coronavirus counting database. In April, Newsom’s chief financial adviser and former chair of the High-Speed Rail Authority Lenny Mendonca abruptly resigned. 

Newsom additionally appointed a series of new advisers to help with the overhaul of the state’s embattled unemployment agency, which has struggled to keep up with the millions of unemployment claims filed since March. He appointed a chief deputy director of external affairs, deputy director of legislative affairs and a new general counsel.

The moves come after several lawmakers called for a shakeup of the agency plagued by old technology and staffing shortages. 

During Friday’s wide-ranging Q&A with reporters, Newsom urged caution when asked about the recent push by state Democrats to raise taxes on millionaires to fund schools. He said he hasn’t read the bills but warned tinkering with the state’s already high tax rate could have unintended economic consequences.

“Your ability to obtain and attract talent, individuals, companies and your competitiveness, everything needs to be considered in that light,” Newsom said of the bills, which are not expected to be heard by the end of the legislative session. 

And with warnings coming from the U.S. Postal Service about the potential for major mail service delays during the fall, Newsom accused President Donald Trump of trying to “sabotage” mail voting. He said insufficient funding of the Post Office could not only impact state elections but deprive services to seniors.

“I haven’t experienced this in my life, I don’t know that any of us have, the weaponization of sorts of our postal system,” Newsom said. 

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