'Zoom in a Room'? California's schools lag in reopening push

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Kindergarten students participate in a classroom activity on the first day of in-person learning at Maurice Sendak Elementary School in Los Angeles, Tuesday, April 13, 2021. More than a year after the pandemic forced all of California's schools to close classroom doors, some of the state's largest school districts are slowly beginning to reopen this week for in-person instruction. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

SAN FRANCISCO – Frustrated parents in San Francisco have coined a new phrase for their latest classroom reality: “Zoom in a Room." In Los Angeles, students can start going back to school in person, but more than half say they will stick with distance learning.

More than a year after the coronavirus pandemic forced California's classrooms to close, some of the largest school districts are welcoming back students this week. But the most populated state is lagging the rest of the country — and in some cases offering options that parents say are unacceptable.

Kira Gaber said she's been told to send her kindergartner back to his San Francisco classroom with a laptop and headphones — aka Zoom in a Room. His teacher will be working online from home, while an adult monitor watches the kids in class.

“How is this OK? This is completely not in-person learning,” said Gaber, who doesn't plan to send her son to class with a computer. “I’m going to send him with worksheets and a coloring book.”

Reopening schools varies city to city because of California's decentralized education system, where 1,200 school districts must negotiate new contracts with workers. While educators were among the first groups eligible for vaccines, some districts have let them keep working from home if they or someone they live with is at increased risk from COVID-19.

Across the U.S., what it means to be back in school looks very different from one state to the next. New York City, the nation's largest school district, allowed students to return last fall, but the Department of Education expects just one-third of its 960,000 K-12 students in classrooms by month's end.

As of March 29, more than 40% of districts nationwide had offered all students the option to return to full-time in-person instruction, according to the Return to Learn Tracker, developed in part by the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

California ranks last in the country, according to Burbio, a company that monitors some 1,200 school districts, including the largest 200 in the country.