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California Issues Guidance on Reopening Schools to High Needs Students

As a vast number of schools remain closed for in-person learning across the country, California has released a set of rules that would allow children with specialized needs to return to classrooms sooner rather than later.

Note: the “students with specialized needs” category could include a broad range of circumstances, including those who are homeless, students with disabilities, and English language learners.

The California Department of Public Health states that students with disabilities should be prioritized in terms of eligibility to return to in-person learning. However, English learners, students at higher risk of further learning loss, students at risk of abuse or neglect, foster youth and students experiencing homelessness can be priority groups.

The one-page guidance released by the state’s Health and Human Services Agency calls for the facilitation of distance learning in controlled, small group environments, with cohorts of no more than fourteen (14) children/youth and no more than two (2) supervising adults.

These small cohorts will be stable groups that are not to mingle with other youth cohorts. Further, the adult assigned to a cohort is not to physically interact with any other cohorts. For instance, it is not permissible for a teacher to interact with a cohort of students in the morning and teach a new group in the afternoon.

The purpose of utilizing the cohort method, according to the California Department of Public Health, is “to minimize the number of people exposed if a COVID-19 tase is identified in a child or youth attendee, provider, other instructional support provider, or staff member of a particular cohort.” The size of the building and school enrollment will determine the maximum number of cohorts, with the number of returning students not to exceed 25% of the school’s total enrollment.

The above guidance applies to all supervised care environments. The state defines these as any environment where multiple children or youth, from multiple families or households, are being supervised simultaneously by an adult. This includes, but is not limited to, licensed child care facilities, licensed exempt child care programs, supervised programs on a school site while a school is not in session or is providing curriculum in a distance-learning format, or where some educational services are being offered to a subgroup of students as identified by a local educational agency on a school campus.

Even with the CDPH’s justifications and guidelines, it is still unclear as to whether or not there will be an adequate number of teachers and staff members willing to go back to school amid the obvious health concerns.

California Teachers Association communications assistant manager, Claudia Bigg’s expressed both support and apprehension to the new framework by stating “The small cohort approach is a good direction, but it should be an approach that is considered when the community conditions are safe, and where a low COVID-19 threshold has been reached in communities and counties as established by the state.” She went on to point out that the “ever-changing guidance” is beginning to make it difficult for districts, educators and parents to plan and stay the course for instruction and believes that districts should stay focused on their current opening plans.

It seems that the teachers themselves are also at a division in terms of willingness to return to physical classrooms. While some special education teachers have expressed eagerness to return to school early, others are far more anxious. “If it’s not safe for regular ed teachers then it definitely is not safe for special ed teachers,” wrote one teacher on an EdSource article.

“Teamwork between districts and teachers will be the watchword,” says Kevin Gordon, president of education consulting firm Capitol Advisors Group.

Check back here at for further updates on this topic and the status of schools reopening.

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