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A student at Magnolia Elementary concentrates on a classroom assignment. Magnolia is one of several schools in the Cajon Valley Union School District to offer child care for families during the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

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In California, kids must go to school. Teachers must teach in school. The laws are clear on both. Those laws were suspended in the 2020-2021 school year to allow districts and charter schools across the state to offer online or hybrid instruction to protect students and staff from the spread of COVID-19.

Now, education may never be the same. Some kids thrived learning online. Many others did not. Some exasperated parents fled to private schools that managed to reopen faster for in-person learning. Others sought out independent study options from charter schools that helped them manage what was essentially enforced home schooling.

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Most students will forever see some of the tools they used in the emergency become part of their ongoing student life long after COVID-19 becomes a historical memory. Teachers learned how to organize task lists online. Parents now often expect more transparency and visibility and can more easily follow students’ progress. And everyone knows how to use Zoom better.

But those laws that require young people to go to school were not suspended this year.

Kids will be going back.

Not all kids, though. The Legislature has allowed districts to provide students the option to stay home and learn a different way. Dozens of school districts, charter schools and private schools are launching, expanding or rebranding online options. And some are going further and facilitating independent study programs. With independent study programs, districts and charter schools provide guidance to families but leave the daily pace and tasks up to the families to manage.

(We have listed the districts, charter schools and private schools offering this option in this guide, and Will Huntsberry has a more comprehensive piece about what online schooling will be like.)

Even if only a small portion of those kids who liked learning online stay learning online, it will reshape the educational landscape. By June, even though they could return to in-person learning in some form, most high school students chose to stay home.

We don’t know yet if this is a permanent phenomenon or the temporary result of an awkward year. Many high schools opened in a very limited way, with restricted movements and without many of the social and community benefits of a high school campus.

Some have told us that what schools were offering for in-person schooling wasn’t worth getting up early for and that they didn’t want to go to school if it meant just sitting in a room.

A lot of them will go back when the full school campus experience is back. But there will be nerves.

“We’ve been away from other people and normal socializing for so long and young people can be especially prone to social anxiety, so parents need to be sensitive to whether their kids are experiencing normal social anxiety or whether their kids really will thrive better without the regular school experience,” said Laura Kohn, a longtime advocate for education quality and the strategic adviser for Mission Driven Finance. (Kohn is also a partner in producing this guide.)

Zachary Patterson, who is now a senior at UC High School and the student representative on San Diego Unified’s Board of Education, said he will be trying to tell his peers the benefits of going back to campuses. But he knows that a lot of people will see staying home as a better or safer alternative.

“You miss a lot when you’re not taking the chance to grab coffee or walk with someone or stay after school to discuss something. Those experiences are impossible to mimic online,” he said.

Sara Boquin, the CEO of Barrio Logan College Institute, which helps mentor and guide students who would be the first of their family to go to college, said she understands that a lot of families will want to stay home for their educations. Many were spared bullying and discrimination.

“The flip side is that school and the environment on campuses can be a positive for students who have challenging lives at home. They can be safe spaces for them, and we don’t want to overemphasize the risks,” Boquin said.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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