What you need to know about LBUSD’s independent study option for those leery of sending kids back to class

Long Beach Unified will offer just one option for parents still leery of sending their kids back to class in the midst of a pandemic—and school officials stressed this week that it’s much different than last year’s virtual classrooms when schools were completely closed.

The independent study program will require students unenroll from their current school, and enroll in Beach Independent Studies for the upcoming school year. It is the only option to remain in the district while learning from home.

Superintendent Jill Baker said this week she’s heard from some in the community who want a repeat of last year’s distance learning, with daily Zoom instruction from the teacher at their student’s current school, but that a change in state regulations doesn’t allow for it.

“It’s hard to hear but it’s true,” she said during a recent Board of Education workshop. “The district is implementing what we’re authorized to implement.”

Seeking to encourage a return normal instruction, the California Legislature passed a bill in mid-July that gave districts the option to expand existing but seldom-used independent study programs for those who wanted to remain at home.

The bill was passed at a time when case rates were low, but new cases have since risen as restrictions were lifted and the more contagious delta variant has become the dominant strain of COVID-19.

“I share the frustration that we’re dealing with something that was created in the hopes that we’d be in a different place health-wise (at the start of the school year),” Board of Education member Megan Kerr said during the workshop.

Rather than continue last year’s “distance learning” approach, the independent study option requires students to do most of their work on their own with very little live instruction. It’s recommended only for highly-motivated students and specifically not recommended for special education students, some of whom are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Board President Juan Benitez said the district has received over 2,800 questions regarding the independent study program, a few of which are answered in a video about the program posted on the district’s Youtube page this week.

Benitez said he heard from those in the community who felt “punished” for wanting this option, as students will be unenrolled from their current school without a guarantee of a spot back. Students also will not be able to participate in extracurricular activities.

Baker stressed during the board’s meeting Wednesday that almost all students will be able to return to their current school when they finish independent study.

“There are rare circumstances where a family would not be able to return to their school,” she said. “That would be rare—we expect they’d be able to go back to the school they’re attending.”

Baker also stressed that the district has taken every precaution when most of the district’s 70,000 students go back Aug. 31. The district is requiring masking, encouraging distancing inside, requiring vaccination or testing among staff, testing unvaccinated students weekly, and has installed ventilation or filtration systems in every classroom.

Because the State Assembly did not provide for a more robust distance learning program, and because the district is confident in its safety protocols, Baker emphasized that they’re planning for a school year with campuses open and filled with students.

“The default is that students are returning to school on Aug. 31,” she said. “On Friday when school offices open they’re operating on the assumption that students are returning—we’re planning for almost all students to return to school.”

Boardmembers recognized that students will be returning to full instructional days for the first time in almost a year and a half at a time when the pandemic is worsening once again.

“Some families with students under 12 are waiting for the vaccine to be available,” said Benitez. “We’re less than two weeks away and there’s still a lot of questions we weren’t able to address.”

Parents who are interested in the independent study program as an alternative to in-person instruction can get more information by calling the school their student is currently enrolled in on Aug. 20 when offices open. The full text of the independent study policy unanimously adopted by the Board of Education on Wednesday is available here.

Boardmember Doug Otto thanked the community for their patience and asked for continued trust.

“These are extraordinarily unusual times,” he said. “There’s a lot of fear about what the future is going to look like. I hope that people…will give us the good faith that you have for so many years that we’ll work with you, that we’re interested in the best education for all of our students.”

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