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State directs agencies to prioritize digital divide; small group waiver details
As more than 95 percent of the state’s schools begin the year with distance learning, hastening the closure of the digital divide is at the forefront of priorities for local educational agencies and the state. In a wide-ranging press conference on Aug. 14 addressing the challenges of implementing distance learning and reopening schools, Gov. Gavin Newsom spoke about newly issued Executive Order N-73-20, which directs state agencies to prioritize identifying and funding the infrastructure needed to provide broadband internet to areas of the state that currently lack access. Estimates from the California Department of Education indicate that 700,000 students need a device and 300,000 need an internet connection to successfully participate in distance learning.

In summarizing the work of the CDE’s Digital Divide Task Force led by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, Gov. Newsom said “nothing is more foundational to the future of the state of California and to address the issue of equity” than to address the state’s digital divide. Newsom noted that hundreds of thousands of devices have been set aside for California schools through the partnerships the state has developed with private companies, including a new deal with Apple and T-Mobile offering discounted iPads equipped with an internet connection. “There is a global demand for supplies, for Chromebooks and for equipment for education,” Gov. Newsom said. “I want to thank the superintendent for working with these companies to set aside and prioritize the access of quite literally hundreds of thousands of these devices for our school kids.”

The executive order prioritizes actions to bridge the digital divide throughout state government and directs agencies to pursue a goal of 100 megabits per second download speed. It outlines actions to accelerate mapping, data collection, funding, deployment and adoption of broadband by local governments, including directing the California Public Utilities Commission to work with the California State Transportation Agency to identify areas in need of broadband access and “to incorporate the installation of conduit and/or fiber into all appropriate and feasible transportation projects along strategic corridors.” The order also requests the state’s Broadband Council create a new State Broadband Action Plan by Dec. 31, 2020.

The partnership with Apple and T-Mobile is expected to be able to connect up to 1 million students in need across California by the end of the year, with some of those devices available immediately. The partnership also provides users with access to Apple’s Professional Learning team, which will provide weekly virtual training sessions for teachers, offering creative strategies for learning remotely. Apple also offers one-to-one virtual coaching sessions and teachers can gain foundational technology skills through the Apple Teacher Learning Center, available at no cost. To order devices, contact your Apple or T-Mobile Education Account Manager, call 1-877-386-4246 and a meeting for your school district will be scheduled, or submit an inquiry at

Meanwhile, in the Legislature, two bills addressing the digital divide are making their way through the Assembly and Senate. Assembly Bill 570 (Aguiar-Curry, D–Winters) would make progress towards addressing the state’s current lack of adequate infrastructure needed to support closing the digital divide by requiring the California Advanced Services Fund to promote remote learning and telehealth and requiring the Public Utilities Commission to prioritize projects that reach the greatest number of underserved households, among other factors. Senate Bill 1130 (L. Gonzalez, D-Long Beach) would require the PUC to develop, implement and administer the CASF program to fund projects that will provide high-capacity, 21st-century-ready communications infrastructure based on current engineering and scientific information, and also prioritized unserved areas.

Waivers and small group instruction
The California Department of Public Health on Aug. 3 released updated guidance for reopening California schools, which outlines the waiver process through which local educational agencies in counties on the COVID-19 monitoring list can seek to resume in-person instruction at elementary schools (TK-6 only). It also provides the parameters under which youth sports and physical education can take place and expressly forbids school-sponsored events such as pep rallies, school dances, field trips and other activities that cause students to congregate outside of cohorts or to meet in uncontrolled settings.

Among other criteria, the waiver language says that schools within jurisdictions with 14-day case rates more than two times the threshold to be on the County Monitoring List (>200 cases/100,000 population) should not be considered for a waiver to reopen in-person instruction. Prior to applying for the waiver with the local health officer, the head of the relevant educational must consult with labor, parent and community organizations, and publish elementary school reopening plans on the website of the LEA.

Guidance for small group cohorts on closed school campuses
According to new guidance released by the California Department of Public Health on Aug. 25, LEAs in counties on the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list can offer in-person, targeted, specialized support and services to small groups of students as outlined below. The guidance allows stable cohorts that stay together throughout the day of no more than 14 students, with no more than two supervising adults in a supervised environment. Cohorts can be smaller than 14 students. The new guidance does not require LEAs to provide this small group instruction — it is an available option, and does not require a waiver.

The determination of which students will be brought onto school grounds in cohorts during school closures is made at the LEA- and school-level based on student need. The accompanying frequently asked questions document indicates students with disabilities should be prioritized. The document also states that the following groups may be prioritized: English learners, students at higher risk of further learning loss or not participating in distance learning, students at risk of abuse or neglect, foster youth and students experiencing homelessness.

According to the guidance, students may receive one-on-one services from qualified adults NOT in the cohort. These additional supports and services must be done individually. Staff who are providing specialized services or targeted support — such as speech or occupational therapy or intensive tutoring — should be assigned to work with students in as few cohorts as possible and must observe appropriate precautions to prevent transmission, including wearing appropriate personal protective equipment, as specified in the industry guidance for Limited Services.

While cohorts should never mix, schools can have cohorts of students who participate only on certain days or certain times during the day. Proper cleaning must be done in between different cohorts occupying the same space. The number of cohorts will depend on the school’s enrollment size and available building capacity. Local school officials — in collaboration with local health departments and school-based staff — should determine the number of cohorts that can be safely established to avoid interactions between cohorts.

In general, given the need for physical distancing and separation of cohorts, the number of students on a given school site should generally not exceed 25 percent of the school’s enrollment size or available building capacity. Each cohort requires at least one supervising adult and the use of school-based staff may require negotiations with labor partners.

Read the guidance here: Read the accompanying FAQs here: