Distance Learning Implementation: Legislative and Executive Guidance on Education in the 2020-2021 School Year
On June 29, 2020 Senate Bill 98 (“SB 98”) was signed into law by Governor Newsom. While SB 98 is a budget bill and outlines school funding throughout the state of California for the 2020-2021 school year, it also provides distance learning standards for local educational agencies (“LEA”) to implement as the unprecedented 2020-2021 school year begins.
SB 98 defines distance learning as, “instruction in which the pupil and the instructor are in different locations and the pupils are under the general supervision of a certificated employee of the local education agency.” Distance learning can include:
- Interaction, instruction, and check ins between teachers and students through computer or communication technology
- Video or audio instruction between students and teachers through computer or communication technology
- Oral or written feedback on written material assignments
SB 98 specifies that distance learning is an option for schools to meet the required number of instructional days and required number of school day instructional minutes for the 2020-2021 school year. Although distance learning is an option for LEAs to rely on when necessary, SB 98 does not allow for it to be the sole method of educational instruction provided. SB 98 outlines that instructional day and school day minute requirements must be met through either in-person instruction or a combination of in-person instruction and distance learning. In-person instruction is defined as “instruction under the immediate physical supervision of a certificated employee of the local educational agency while engaged in educational activities…”
SB 98 goes on to define two situations when distance learning can be implemented:
- When an LEA or school determines it is necessary based on order or guidance from state public health office or local public health officer.
- If a student is medically fragile, would be put at risk by in-person instruction or is quarantining because of COVID-19.
Based on SB 98, these scenarios appear to be the only events when distance learning is available as an option, however Senator Holly J. Mitchell and Assembly member Philip Y. Ting each submitted letters to the Senator Journal stating that the legislative intent was not to limit the ability of local educational agencies to only these situations for distance learning. Rather, SB 98 aims to give flexibility to determine what is best for the school community and effective learning.
Governor Newsom’s July 17, 2020 plan for learning and safe schools provided a specific framework for when schools may reopen and offer in-person instruction, clarifying that distance learning is necessary in most schools for at least part of this year. Only after the LEA’s county has been off the state COVID-19 monitoring list for 14 days and with implementation of policies and procedures to limit the spread of COVID-19 can schools host in-person instruction. Until those conditions are met and it is determined safe to return classrooms, distance learning will be the sole method of educating.
It could be the case that when schools are eventually able to reopen, a hybrid approach with both distance learning and in-person learning is used. In any situation where distance learning is used, SB 98 requires the following standards to be met:
- Confirmation or provision of access for all pupils to connectivity and devices
- Provision of content aligned to grade level standard and provided in a way substantially close to in-person
- Provision of academic and other supports for in need students (i.e. those in foster care or experiencing homelessness and those with mental health issues)
- Provision of special education services
- Provision of English language development services
- Daily live interaction with certificated employees and peers or plan to ensure that frequent live interaction occurs
- Provision of nutritionally adequate meals
- Documentation of student participation each day distance learning is required
- Implementation of procedures to reengage absent students
- Regular communication with parents about progress
These standards present numerous new challenges and obstacles for LEAs as they work to deliver educational services to students. Particularly challenging will be the requirement to document student daily participation and chronic absenteeism (as required by Education Code section 43504 (d) and (e)) for distance learning, in-person learning, and hybrid models. Tracking student involvement across methods, reengaging absent students and encouraging participation from a distance is new territory that all LEAs will have to plan for.
To ensure compliance with SB 98’s requirements, LEA’s should begin with the following steps:
- Maintain written documentation of the education plans detailing how the SB 98 requirements are satisfied when implementing distance learning
- Keep up to date on the health status of the county and keep in contact with the local county health official to determine if/when reopening for in-person learning is appropriate.
- Confer with legal counsel when uncertain about the requirements of SB 98 and other related laws passed in response to the COVID 19 pandemic.
Evolution of the pandemic may lead to changes in the implementation of distance learning, in-person instruction and hybrid models. It is best for schools to continue to check for updates from both the Governor’s office and the Legislature on this matter.
 The 2020-2021 instructional day requirement is 180 days. Each instructional day must have the following number of instructional minutes:
- School day for kindergarten = 180 minutes
- School day for 1-3 grade = 230 minutes
- School day for 4-12 grade = 240 minutes
Instructional minutes are calculated as follows:
- In-person = time scheduled under immediate supervision and control of an employee of the LEA
- Distance learning = time value of assignments as determined and verified employee who is certified
- Combination/hybrid = can combine the two
 The California Department of Education, Apple, and T-Mobile have collaborated to provide California school districts with a discount on internet-enabled devices to help provide access to all California students.