Navigating the Great Return: A more traditional, but still uncertain, back-to-school experience expected for fall
tudents across California were already back in classrooms by early July, catching up on credits and participating in expanded learning opportunities after more than a year of disruption.

With summer instruction well underway, local educational agencies waited to hear from state leaders about COVID-19-related safety requirements for the fall.

At the time of this writing, the California Department of Public Health was still requiring all individuals, vaccinated or not, to wear a mask while indoors at school campuses, child care facilities and other youth-centered settings per its June 15 public health order.

by Heather Kemp
clipart of students raising there hands wearing masks in a classroom
y Aug. 11, CDPH had issued a state public health order, “Vaccine Verification for Workers in Schools,” ( requiring school workers to either provide proof of full vaccination or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. The order was to be fully implemented by Oct. 15, 2021. The department had already made it clear that masks should continue to be worn while indoors at all K-12 campuses in addition to the implementation of other safety measures, such as testing and proper ventilation (

“Masks are one of the most effective and simplest safety mitigation layers to prevent in-school transmission of COVID-19 infections and to support full time in-person instruction in K-12 schools,” the department stated.

The state of limbo LEAs experienced prior to fall 2021 has become part of the new normal. Since March of 2020, LEAs have had to account for changing guidelines countless times.

“If there is one muscle that we’ve built, it’s responding to guidance quickly. We will deal with it however it comes,” said Keziah Moss, director of community and employee engagement at San Leandro Unified School District said in late June. “It will be hard to surprise us at this point.”

In addition to developing plans of action relating to COVID transmission in the community, districts like Moss’ have made plans to address other troublesome circumstances such as wildfires.

Located in the Bay Area, the district serves upwards of 8,800 students. Hybrid instruction was offered in spring, but Moss explained that they were hoping for a full, in-person experience for fall after promotion and graduation ceremonies marked the return of major in-person events in San Leandro.

“It was an enormous amount of work, but it felt like everyone had these tireless reserves, especially coming off of this year when everybody’s already very tired,” Moss said of the ceremonies. “It was really special to be able to see these kids and for some of them it was the first time they had seen each other after all this time. To have everybody in one space back together again in person, not Zoom, gave so much hope.”

Planning for fall instruction and extracurriculars
Prior to the beginning of the 2021–22 academic year, Gov. Gavin Newsom made it clear he wanted all students back in person with some version of independent study or virtual academies available for those not yet ready or able to do so.

The availability of vaccinations was a game changer compared to the previous year. According to CDPH, as of Aug. 11, 63 percent of eligible Californians age 12 and older were fully vaccinated, with an additional 10 percent being partially vaccinated. This is good news, as case positivity rates are increasing due to the more contagious delta variant.

Atascadero USD, located in San Luis Obispo County, made an effort to vaccinate as many teachers as possible early on. Some elementary students were able participate in hybrid instruction as early as November with in-person options gradually rolling out for more grades. George Shoemaker, Atascadero USD board president, said the district is committed to opening for full, in-person instruction for fall.

“We really just want to get back on track. We want to continue to pursue supporting each student as much as possible on their college, career and citizenship journey,” Shoemaker said.

one muscle that we’ve built, it’s responding to guidance quickly. We will deal with it however it comes. It will be hard to surprise us at this point.”
—Keziah Moss, director, community and employee engagement, San Leandro USD
neon clipart of school supplies
Serving roughly 4,300 students, Shoemaker added that the district intends on having all extracurriculars available as well (as do most LEAs). “The connection that kids have to our schools and is often the thing they are passionate about,” Shoemaker said. “We would love kids to all be passionate about the academics, but a lot of kids are really passionate about the other things they get to do on top of the academics.”

Long recognized as a tool to boost academic performance and enhance social skills, activities including sports, theater and music may be more important than ever. Though some LEAs — like Alhambra USD in Los Angeles County — did successfully adapt extracurriculars to the virtual world, participation in such programming will aid and re-engage students as they return to an in-person school routine.

Another priority among LEAs up and down the Golden State is determining how best to use one-time funds to address the wide range of student needs. Atascadero USD created a multi-year plan to spend one-time funding coming from the state and federal governments to help young learners academically and emotionally. “We’re not committing any of those monies to ongoing projects, we are looking at targeting interventions to best address the learning loss that kids have experienced,” Shoemaker explained.

Using the FastBridge assessment system, the district administered the first in a series of three tests in math and English to students prior to summer. Along with teacher recommendations, the tests identified students who possibly needed summer school and/or additional support in fall.

A June 2021 Public Policy Institute of California report on the impact COVID-19 has had on learning found that compared to growth experienced in previous years, some students had a learning lag of roughly 2.6 months in English-language arts and 2.5 months in math. A body of research has also identified that English learners, students with disabilities and students of color have been inequitably impacted by conditions due to the pandemic. Reports of mental health struggles among adolescents are also on the rise.

To aid LEAs in the coming months, CSBA released a resource guide following its 2021 Delegate Assembly, “Turning crisis into opportunity: Resources for board members in planning for the 2021–22 year and beyond,” to help address important topics like learning recovery, return to campus protocols, mental health of students and staff, professional development and use of one-time funds.

Supporting students, addressing their needs
Representatives from Atascadero, Alhambra and San Leandro USDs all stated that they were hiring professionals like counselors, psychologists and intervention specialists to help with social-emotional needs and development.

“Now we’ll have the resources to, more than we ever have, address social-emotional issues because we know there are going to be a lot,” Atascadero USD’s Shoemaker said. “We can hope that kids are behaviorally well adjusted and come back to a smooth transition, but we don’t know.”

Further south, Alhambra USD Board President Ken Tang said while many assumptions are being made, students they’ve seen in-person were well behaved and engaged and did not display behavioral issues.

Serving more than 16,800 youth, Tang explained that for the 2021–22 academic year, educators plan on meeting students where they’re at, getting to know them and identifying any supports they need to help them move forward “just like we do every year.”

want to get back on track. We want to continue to pursue supporting each student as much as possible on their college, career and citizenship journey.”
—George Shoemaker board president Atascadero USD
clipart of students raising their hands
“Our goal is to ensure we allow time to build solid relationships, maintain instruction that is active and engaging, and be observant and ready to provide any special support that individual students may need,” Tang continued.

Similarly, in San Leandro, Moss said the district is taking a supportive, student-centered approach. Having already welcomed some students back to campus, they were able to observe students’ behavior and overall, they were just excited to be back.

“The kids that came back are excited to be back in their classrooms with their teachers and peers,” Moss said. “There are going to be bumps, that is what school is for.”

Continuing technology use
Knowing how to use technology like video conferencing or computer programs are skills that students are going to need to know as they advance in life, Moss noted, adding how impressed everyone has been with the quality of work and growth they’ve seen at every age.

“Students all had to get pretty familiar and fluent in using technology. It will play a key role in moving forward. Who would want to take this learning away?” Moss said. “Teachers agree and have gone through their own growth. I’m excited to see what next year’s going to look like with the combination of being in person and having the increased use of technology.”

Of course, access to reliable broadband and devices is still an immediate concern, especially in more rural areas. Initiatives like the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Connectivity Fund Program are working to help cover costs like tablets, modems, routers and WiFi hotspots. More good news came in the 2020–21 state budget, which includes a historic $6 billion investment in broadband access and infrastructure — an equity issue elevated by CSBA since the early days of the pandemic, and long on its advocacy agenda. More than half of the investment, $3.25 billion, will fund the construction of state-owned “middle-mile” broadband infrastructure that will connect “last-mile” local networks to the greater internet. Funds will be prioritized by areas and entities without sufficient connectivity, including elementary and secondary schools. The budget also provides $2 billion for last-mile projects, which will connect unserved and underserved households to high-speed internet. At least $1 billion of the funds are required to be used for projects in rural counties, and $1 billion is initially allocated to urban counties.

Resources for LEAs as they plan for fall and beyond:
  • CSBA 2021 Delegate Assembly Resource Guide, “Turning crisis into opportunity: Resources for board members in planning for the 2021–22 year and beyond” ( includes information to help address topics like learning recovery, return-to-campus protocols, mental health of students and staff, professional development and use of one-time funds.
  • CSBA research and policy brief “Supporting California Students in a Time of Crisis” ( delves into barriers to learning like access to technology and shares possible solutions.
  • “Reimagine and Rebuild: Restarting School with Equity at the Center” (, a report by California-based family and student engagement organizations, looks at the impact of COVID-19 on schools and students and gives recommendations for rebuilding and recovery.
  • EdTech article “Post-Pandemic Classrooms: What Will They Look Like and How Will They Be Different?” ( examines how K-12 educators should plan to accommodate students who will remain in remote learning as well as integrate new technology and support one-to-one devices for those who are on campus.
While students were excelling on their Chromebooks in San Leandro — a 1:1 district pre-pandemic — community engagement also picked up with attendance at virtual school board and other meetings increasing dramatically, according to Moss. While working on its latest Local Control and Accountability Plan last year, the district appreciated the additional input that it likely wouldn’t have otherwise received.

“It made such a difference to have that many more people able to be involved and wanting to be involved in what’s going on,” Moss stated. “We were able to get people on board, that’s not something we want to lose moving forward. We’re going to continue to find ways to get people involved.”

Tang agreed that the use of platforms like Zoom has “opened up a world of opportunities for engagement by parents and community that otherwise might not have been able to actively participate in our meetings.” For students, the district will try to strike a balance between encouraging the use of technology and valuing human connection.

“Technology remains vital in the success of classrooms as we move forward. We continue to see an increase in the use of technology,” Tang said. “However, what we learned from this pandemic is that technology cannot replace the role of the teachers and staff because social, emotional and mental wellness play a major role in the lives of our students and staff.”

Heather Kemp is a staff writer for California Schools.