The state budget package for 2021-22 includes changes to independent study to allow all schools to offer a replacement for a distance learning option for students and families who prefer to remain outside of in-person instruction.
On June 30, a provision from last year’s budget expired that waived some in-person requirements and allowed for “distance learning” during the 2020-21 school year. A budget trailer bill (AB 130) signed on July 9 enacts a new set of guidelines that will govern independent study for the 2021-22 school year. These guidelines were subsequently altered by another budget trailer bill (AB 167) passed on September 9, 2021.
Overview of Changes
The new law requires, for the 2021-22 year only, that all school districts offer an independent study option, where previously independent study was a voluntary option. Parents or guardians will be able to enroll their children in independent study programs if they feel the child’s health would be put at risk by in-person instruction. There is no medical verification requirement.
Districts where there is low enrollment and the requirement would create an “unreasonable fiscal burden” will need to contract with a county office of education or another school district to provide the independent study option. If no option exists, districts may apply for a waiver from providing independent study programs. Alternatively, districts are also incentivized to have independent study programs capped at no more than 10% of the student population. Going over this limit will trigger a reduction in ADA for the number of students in excess of the 10% cap.
Independent study programs this coming year will need to meet higher standards and will have new requirements, in comparison with traditional programs. The requirements include various levels of synchronous instruction time and live interactions, with frequencies determined by grade level; access to meals and technology required for remote learning; access to courses required for graduation; and more.
Some districts are also offering “virtual academies” that are offered through the independent study statute, and the new rules will apply to them as well. Virtual academics are fully online public schools, not charter schools, that are overseen by a school district.
Requirements for 2021-22 School Year
This law allows school districts to offer independent study for pupils whose parent or guardian determines that in-person instruction would put the pupil’s health at risk.
It requires school districts and county offices of education to offer independent study, which could be provided through a contract with a county office of education or by entering into an interdistrict transfer agreement with another school district for the 2021-22 school year. Districts and county offices of education may seek a waiver under specified hardship circumstances.
A Local Educational Agency (LEA) will be need to meet a set of new requirements, which include adopting and implementing policies to:
Require a level of satisfactory educational progress that would allow a student to remain in an Independent study program, including pupil achievement and engagement, completion of assignments, learning required concepts, progressing toward completion of the course of study or specific course;
- Provide content aligned to grade level standards and be equivalent to in-person instruction, including access to courses for graduation and meeting college going requirements, teacher qualifications, and student-teacher ratios;
- Provide procedures for tiered re-engagement for students who are not generating attendance for three or more school days, or 60%, of instructional days in a school week, or are violating the independent study agreement;
- Provide a plan for specified synchronous instruction requirements by grade level;
- Provide a plan to transition pupils when families wish to return to in-person instruction — within five instructional days at most.
There are also a variety of other changes related to communication with students and families, the requirements of written independent study agreements, resources to be provided to students, documentation required by local educational agencies, and updated requirements for background checks for staff and contractors.
The new law amends requirements regarding school closures for unanticipated events or natural disasters to include a plan for independent study.
There are similar changes to the course-based independent study program.
Clarifications in AB 167
Within the health and safety constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, the changes are intended to guarantee access to in-person instruction for all students, provide a pathway for continuous instruction for students exposed to or infected with COVID-19, and elevate the flexibility inherent in Independent Study to enable a robust instructional program that supports continuity with in-person instruction using remote learning instructional strategies.
Independent study is the vehicle to be used for ongoing student learning when students must be home for short periods — whether for a quarantine associated with the COVID-19 pandemic or because of the effects of a natural disaster, such as a fire. Although not specifically delineated in statute, participation in traditional IS for fewer than 15 school days during the school year shall be referred to as participation in “short-term” independent study. Participation in traditional independent study for 15 school days or more shall be referred to as “long-term” IS.
Short-Term Independent Study
For quarantine: LEAs may earn ADA apportionment for student attendance from the first day of traditional IS when used for quarantine. For the purposes of quarantine or COVID-19-related closure, the IS master agreement does not have to include the statement that instruction may be provided to the pupil through IS only if the pupil is offered the alternative of classroom instruction. For the 2021–22 school year, LEAs may obtain signed master agreements up to 30 days after a student begins an IS program.
For all other short-term uses: LEAs may earn apportionment for student attendance for absences that are scheduled to last three or more instructional days. For the purposes of a non-quarantine IS program, the IS agreement does have to include the statement that instruction may be provided to the pupil through IS only if the pupil is offered the alternative of classroom instruction. For the 2021-22 school year, LEAs may obtain signed master agreements up to 30 days after a student begins an IS program.
Regardless of how the short-term IS is provided to a student, LEAs have broad discretion over instructional methods used. These methods may include paper or virtual assignments, lectures, videos, simulcasting, interactive curriculum, and other types of instruction. Students must create a tangible work product to which their teacher must assign a time value. In the case of lectures, videos, simulcasting, and other methods that do not lend themselves to a tangible work product, students may create notes, write summaries of what they learned, complete a quiz or project related to the instruction, produce an audio or video recording, or complete other related assignments that allow for the time value of a student’s effort during or resulting from the instruction to be counted.
The time value of a student’s effort can be ascertained by the teacher’s documentation that the student participated in activities visible during synchronous online instruction. For example, for students who are unable to document their own participation in an assignment, (e.g. students in lower primary grade levels), a teacher who witnesses it via Zoom or other online visual platform may document the time that it takes for a student to complete an assignment/activity/task to substantiate the time value assigned to the work product.
Relative to the standard (“long-term”) IS requirements described below, LEAs may offer a less complex form of IS to students in their first 14 school days of IS; they do not have to provide synchronous instruction, daily live interaction, or tiered reengagement for students during the first 14 school days. However, LEAs are encouraged to develop instructional plans that ensure continuity and connection to in-person instruction and are not prohibited from immediately offering synchronous instruction and live interaction. In order to continue receiving apportionment funding for a student past 14 days, LEAs must include synchronous instruction, access to daily live interaction, and tiered reengagement pursuant to statute. The 14 school days are cumulative over the school year.
Long-Term Independent Study
As stated above, under AB 130, for the 2021–22 school year only, school districts and County Offices of Education (COE) are required to offer IS as an educational option (Education Code, Section 51745). School districts may choose to contract with a COE or establish an interdistrict transfer agreement with another school district to meet the requirement of offering IS for the 2021–22 school year. In order to earn apportionment for students in quarantine, districts must offer learning opportunities through IS, except where not provided for in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).
Educational opportunities offered through both short-term and long-term IS may include:
- Special assignments extending the content of regular courses of instruction.
- Individualized study in a particular area of interest or in a subject not currently available in the regular school curriculum.
- Individualized alternative education designed to teach the knowledge and skills of the core curriculum.
- Continuing and special study during travel.
- Volunteer community service activities and leadership opportunities that support and strengthen pupil achievement.
- Individualized study for a pupil whose health would be put at risk by in-person instruction, as determined by the parent or guardian of the pupil.
In order to generate apportionment for IS, all LEAs must have adopted and implemented board policies and written agreements that meet specific criteria. In addition to requirements in effect prior to the enactment of AB 130, board policies need to be updated to also include the following:
- Provision of standards-aligned content in IS that is substantially equivalent to the quality and intellectual challenge of in-person instruction.
- For high schools, a provision for access to all courses offered by the LEA for graduation and approved by the University of California or the California State University as creditable under the A–G admissions criteria.
- Confirmation or provision of access to all pupils to the connectivity and devices adequate for participation and completion of work.
- A plan to provide opportunities for daily synchronous instruction for grades TK through three, daily live interaction and at least weekly synchronous instruction for grades four through eight, and at-least weekly synchronous instruction for grades nine through twelve pursuant to EC sections 51747(e) and 51749.5(a)(4)(C).
- A plan to transition pupils whose families wish to return to in-person instruction from IS expeditiously, and not later than five instructional days.
- A statement of academic and other supports provided to address the needs of pupils not performing at grade level, or needing support in other areas such as English learners, individuals with exceptional needs in order to be consistent with the pupil’s IEP or 504 plan, pupils in foster care, pupils experiencing homelessness, and pupils requiring mental health supports.
- The level of satisfactory educational progress that would trigger an evaluation of whether or not the pupil should be allowed to continue in IS.
- The manner, time, frequency, and place for communicating with a pupil’s parent or guardian regarding academic progress.
- Procedures for tiered reengagement strategies for students who may not be succeeding in IS, including verification of current contact information, notification to parents or guardians of lack of participation, a plan for outreach from the school to determine pupil needs, including connection with health and social services as necessary, a plan for reconsidering the IS program’s impact on the pupil’s achievement and well-being.
Live Interaction and Synchronous Instruction Requirements
There are requirements for “opportunities” for live instruction time but there are no exact number of live minutes prescribed. Instead, independent study programs must provide daily live instruction for students in transitional kindergarten to grades 3, opportunities for daily live instruction and at least weekly live instruction for grades 4-8, and weekly synchronous instruction for high school students. Documentation of attendance and participation is required.
- For pupils in transitional kindergarten and grades 1 to 3, inclusive, a plan to provide opportunities for daily synchronous instruction for all pupils throughout the school year.
- For pupils in grades 4 to 8, inclusive, a plan to provide opportunities for both daily live interaction and at least weekly synchronous instruction for all pupils throughout the school year.
- For pupils in grades 9 to 12, inclusive, a plan to provide opportunities for at least weekly synchronous instruction for all pupils throughout the school year.
In the bill, live interaction and synchronous instruction are defined as below:
- “Live interaction” means interaction between the pupil and local educational agency classified or certificated staff, and may include peers, provided for the purpose of maintaining school connectedness, including, but not limited to, wellness checks, progress monitoring, provision of services, and instruction. This interaction may take place in person, or in the form of internet or telephonic communication.=
- “Synchronous instruction” means classroom-style instruction or designated small group or one-on-one instruction delivered in person, or in the form of internet or telephonic communications, and involving live two-way communication between the teacher and pupil. Synchronous instruction shall be provided by the teacher of record for that pupil pursuant to Section 51747.5.
Satisfactory Educational Progress
There are new requirements about how “satisfactory educational progress” is determined. For example:
- The pupil’s achievement and engagement in the independent study program,
- The completion of assignments, assessments, or other indicators that evidence that the pupil is working on assignments.
- Learning required concepts, as determined by the supervising teacher.
- Progressing toward successful completion of the course of study or individual course, as determined by the supervising teacher.
In addition, independent study content aligned to grade level standards must be provided at a level of quality and intellectual challenge substantially equivalent to in-person instruction.
- For high schools, this shall include access to all courses offered by the local educational agency for graduation and approved by the University of California or the California State University as creditable under the A–G admissions criteria.
The new procedures for tiered re-engagement with students will now include, but are not necessarily limited to, all of the following:
- Verification of current contact information for each enrolled pupil.
- Notification to parents or guardians of lack of participation within one school day of the absence or lack of participation.
- A plan for outreach from the school to determine pupil needs, line 16 including connection with health and social services as necessary.
- A clear standard for requiring a pupil-parent-educator conference to review a pupil’s written agreement, and reconsider the independent study program’s impact on the pupil’s achievement and well-being.
- FAQ about new independent study policy, California Department of Education
- FAQ about AB 167, California Department of Education
- Text of budget trailer bill AB 130: Education omnibus budget trailer bill, 2021–22
- Analysis of AB 130
- Text of budget trailer bill AB 167
- Analysis of AB 167
- “California directs districts to offer remote independent study this fall,” EdSource, July 7, 2021