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Newsom, Legislative Leaders Agree to Expanded Independent Study for Remote Learners

Facing a lingering demand for distance learning as California emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders have agreed to expand the state’s independent study program, and require that every public school district offer the remote learning option.

In-person learning will be the default for California schools next year, but the independent study plan, set for a vote in the state legislature on Thursday, is an acknowledgement that some parents may be hesitant to send their children back to the classroom because of health or learning concerns — and would leave the public school system to pursue remote learning.

“Districts were concerned about enrollment and we were concerned that districts may encourage people to go to independent study as a proxy for distance learning,” said Assembly Budget Chair Phil Ting, D-San Francisco. “We really wanted to tighten up how independent study could be utilized by districts.”

Independent study has existed in California schools for decades, but has been used by a small fraction of students — including child athletes, and those with severe health issues.

While many families found distance learning to be a poor substitute for classroom instruction during the pandemic, some came to prefer the remote education their children were receiving.

“This budget proposal strikes a good balance of flexibility to meet the needs of students and families and local school districts,” said Lisa Gardiner, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association. “While in-person learning will be a safe and preferred option for most students this fall, there must be options for students who are medically fragile, cannot be vaccinated or whose parents do not feel safe sending them to school.”

In his revised budget proposal released in May, Newsom made independent study optional for districts, but proposed more rules for the program — requiring districts provide an internet connection for students and monitor their progress on a daily basis.

The final deal reached between the governor and legislative leaders, contained in two bills connected to the state budget, requires all districts to offer independent study.

The only exception would be if the program places an “unreasonable fiscal burden” on the district, and if the agency can’t reach a deal to transfer the student to another district offering independent study.

A statement from the California Association of Suburban School Districts says the group “appreciates the compromise language in AB/SB 130 on independent study that provides an option for independent study in instances in which parents or guardians determine that in-person instruction would put a student’s health at risk.”

Lawmakers are envisioning an independent study program that goes beyond the historic practice of having students pick up a study packet every few weeks.

Credentialed teachers will have to document live daily interaction with their students and kids in grades K-3 must get at least one hour a day of live instruction. Curriculum, instructional minutes and teacher-to-student ratios will have to align with what’s offered to in-person students, and students will be provided with a connected device.

Importantly, Ting said, the bills provide parents with transparency about the independent study program, and a clear path to return their children to the classroom, if desired.

“What we really were focused on is making sure that students that were going into independent study, say for the semester, really understood what they were getting into,” he said. “We ask that they have a parent teacher conference with the administration, so parents are given the pros and cons of what you’re really getting out of independent study.”

Under the agreement, districts must set benchmarks for a student’s progress. Late or unsatisfactory work would lead to “an evaluation of whether or not the pupil should be allowed to continue in course-based independent study.”

And if a family wishes to return their child to the classroom from independent study, districts will have make the transition happen within five school days.

Copyright 2021 KQED