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Distance Learning FAQs

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about Distance Learning for the 2020–21 school year, pursuant to Education Code 43500-43511.

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California Department of Education (CDE); California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS); county office of education (COE); Education Code (EC); local educational agency (LEA); school attendance review board (SARB); State Board of Education (SBE);

Frequently Asked Questions

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The FAQs on this web page are applicable to the 2020–21 school year only.


  1. What is distance learning?

    Distance learning is defined in EC Section 43500(a).

    Distance learning means instruction in which the pupil and instructor are in different locations and pupils are under the general supervision of a certified employee of the LEA. Distance learning may include, but is not limited to, all of the following:

    • Interaction, instructions, and check-ins between teachers and pupils through the use of a computer or other communications technology.
    • Video or audio instruction in which the primary mode of communication between the pupil and certified employee is online interaction, instructional television, video, telecourses, or other instruction that relies on computer or communications technology.
    • The use of print, video, and audio materials incorporating assignments that are the subject of written or oral feedback.
  1. What is considered in-person instruction?

    In-person instruction is defined as instruction under the immediate physical supervision and control of a certificated employee of the LEA while engaged in educational activities required of the pupil.

  1. What is considered an LEA for these purposes? (updated 8/21/20)

    An LEA for purpose of these provisions means a school district, COE, or a charter school, excluding a charter school classified as a nonclassroom-based charter as of the 2019–20 fiscal year. For this purpose, all newly operational charter schools that will begin instruction in the 2020–21 school year by September 30, 2020, which includes newly operational charter schools approved locally by January 1, 2020 that indicated in their petition that they will offer a non-classroom based program, are included in the definition of an LEA.

  1. When can LEAs offer distance learning?

    The intent is that LEAs offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible. However, LEAs can, and in some instances must, offer distance learning and/or hybrid models of learning under certain circumstances during the 2020–21 school year [EC Section 43503(a)(2)].

    • Distance learning and/or a hybrid model of learning (a combination of in-person and distance learning) can be offered as a result of an order or guidance from a state or local public health official.
      • According to a letter to the Journal External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF), the intent is not to require a directive from local public health officials specific to closing down in-person learning, but rather that LEAs actively work in consultation and collaboration with public health officials in determining whether to offer distance learning for a particular site or LEA-wide. The provision is also not intended to prevent an LEA from adopting a distance learning, hybrid, or mixed-delivery instructional model to ensure safety. Instead LEAs have flexibility to determine what instructional model the LEA will adopt during the COVID-19 Pandemic, taking into account the needs of their students and staff and their available infrastructure, provided the model adheres to an applicable state and local health guidance.
      • LEAs do need to continue to follow all other public health guidance, directives, and orders, including those not specific to schools, that impact school indoor and outdoor facilities and activities (e.g., social distancing guidance).
    • For students who are medically fragile, students who are self-quarantining because of exposure to COVID-19, or for students who would be put at risk by in-person instruction.
      • The letter to the Journal notes that the intent is to allow LEAs to offer distance learning based on the unique circumstances of each student. It allows for medically fragile students, and those in self-quarantine, but also for those students who would be put at-risk by in person instruction and as such, does not require an LEA to verify or make a determination that a request for this allowance meets a specific standard.
    • Non-classroom-based charter schools do not provide distance learning as defined in EC Section 43500(a). Instead, non-classroom-based charter schools continue to provide independent study pursuant to their petition. As a result, this new requirement does not apply to non-classroom-based charters who were defined as such pursuant to EC Section 47612.5 as of the 2019–20 fiscal year.

    Distance learning requirements are in place for the 2020–21 school year. LEAs that offer distance learning will not face penalties for instruction that doesn’t meet the requirements outlined in EC Section 43504 prior to September 1, 2020. To the extent possible it is recommended that LEAs begin the school year meeting the requirements outlined.

  1. Is an LEA required to offer distance learning?

    An LEA must offer instruction through distance learning if it is unable to offer in-person instruction in part or fully pursuant to a state or public health order.

  1. What type of distance learning model can LEAs offer?

    LEAs have the flexibility to determine what model best fits their situation, which includes hybrid and mixed-delivery models, so long as it ensures the safety of students and staff. The chosen model must take into account the needs of students and staff, as well as the infrastructure available to the school. The model must also adhere to applicable state or local public health orders or guidance (e.g., wearing face coverings, social distancing requirements, etc.) and include all necessary academic and other supports designed to address the needs of pupils who are not performing at grade level, or need support in other areas. The requirements for distance learning are outlined in EC Section 43503.

  1. Does an LEA need to get approval from a public health official to transition to distance learning?

    An LEA does not need to seek out or receive approval from a state or local public health officer prior to transitioning instruction to a distance learning model. However, LEAs are required to follow public health orders and guidance, as applicable, in determining safe in-person instruction, and when distance learning may be necessary. Parents should be informed of how instruction will occur, in a language understandable to the parent, pursuant to EC Section 48985.

  1. Does an LEA need to get approval from a public health official for its planned model of distance learning?

    An LEA does not need to seek out or receive approval from a state or local public health officer prior for its planned model of distance learning model. However, LEAs are required to following public health orders and guidance, as applicable, in determining safe in-person instruction, and when distance learning may be necessary. Parents should be informed of how instruction will occur, in a language understandable to the parent, pursuant to EC Section 48985.

  1. Is distance learning available to individual students who are at-risk or whose parents have a concern about their student participating in in-person learning?

    Yes, distance learning must be offered for students who are medically fragile, would be put at risk by in person instruction, or who are self-quarantining because of concerns of exposure to COVID-19.

  1. Do schools need to confirm there is a valid reason that a student “would be put at risk by in-person instruction,” or is the student’s risk required to meet a specific standard?

    No. There is not a definition of students who “would be put at risk by in-person instruction,” as there are many circumstances when distance learning may be more appropriate. For example, a student may have a health condition, family members with health condition, live or regularly interact with high-risk individuals, or otherwise be identified as “at-risk” by a parent or guardian. There is no requirement for an LEA to verify or make a determination that a request to utilize distance learning meets a specific standard or require documentation.

  1. What is considered “live interaction?”

    EC Section 43503 requires that distance learning include “daily live interaction.” Daily live interaction is two-way communication between a certificated employee and student each instructional day, at the actual time of occurrence. Daily live interaction is required for every student with both a certificated employee and their student peers. In particular English learners, and students with special needs benefit from daily oral language development opportunities.

    Examples of daily live interaction include in-person and virtual communication or interactions, including but not limited to synchronous online instruction (per statute) and phone calls where both parties communicate at the time of occurrence. One-way communication, including voicemails, emails, or print materials, is not considered a live interaction.

    Pursuant to EC Section 43503(b)(6), if daily live interaction is not feasible as part of regular instruction, the governing board or body of the LEA shall develop, with parent and stakeholder input, an alternative plan for frequent live interaction that provides a comparable level of service and school connectedness.

  1. What is the difference between daily live interaction and daily participation?

    The purpose of daily live interaction, which occurs with teachers and students, is to provide instruction, monitor progress, and maintain school/social connectedness. The intent of daily live interaction is to ensure each student has live contact at least once each instructional day with a certificated employee, and ideally live contact with peers, even if live contact is not possible as part of daily instruction.

    Daily participation is used to track attendance and ensure daily engagement by all students in learning activities. However, documenting daily participation may be met through daily live interaction with a teacher or virtual assignments. Daily participation may also be documented through participation in online activities, completion of regular assignments, and contacts between employees of the LEA, including those other than teachers, and pupils or parents or guardians.

  1. Is the requirement for daily live interaction met if the interaction is only between an individual student and a teacher?

    No. All students are required to receive daily live interaction with both a certificated employee and their peers for the purpose of instruction, progress monitoring and school connectedness. Teachers may meet individually with students but this alone does not meet the requirements for daily live interaction. The minimum standard should be the same for all students regardless of which school or program the student participates in within the LEA. Every effort should be taken to determine the amount of interaction that is needed for students to progress academically and remain engaged in learning and connected to the school community.

  1. Is there a requirement for how frequently regular communication with parents or guardians regarding a pupil’s academic progress must occur?

    The statute does not define how this communication must occur, however LEAs should align communications on student academic progress with communications related to re-engagement of students pursuant to EC Section 43503(f)(2). LEAs should consider including the following when creating their local policy on how frequently to communicate with parents:

    • Language of the parent
    • Progress along the continuum of language development
    • Access to content
    • Strategies to improve attendance and motivation
    • Information for parents to learn the virtual systems used by teachers
    • Information for parents to understand home schedules and learning environments
    • Social-emotional effects from distance learning
    • Additional strategies included in the LEA’s Learning Continuity and Attendance Plan pursuant to EC Section 43509(f)(1)(F).
  1. May a school district require a student to have their camera on during distance learning in order to allow the teacher to take attendance or mark a student as participating? (added 2/2/21)

    A school district is required to document student attendance and participation in school, whether through distance learning or in-person instruction. In the distance learning environment, daily participation may be verified in a variety of ways, including evidence of participation in online activities, completion of regular assignments, completion of assessments, and contacts between employees of the school district and students or parents/guardians or by any other means determined by the LEA. EC Section 43504(d). Students who do not participate in school for at least part of the instructional day are considered absent.

    The law does not speak to whether a school district may require a student to have their cameras on to document participation in distance learning provided via Zoom or some other virtual meeting platform. Instead, the law states that for purposes of documenting daily participation, such documentation may include, but is not limited to, evidence of participation in online activities, completion of regular assignments, completion of assessments, and contacts between employees of the school district and students or parents/guardians. Because the language states that documentation is not limited to these examples, there may be instances in which a school district chooses to document daily participation by tracking students’ on-camera participation in assigned distance learning. LEAs may choose to document daily participation in this way, but should not limit documenting daily participation to tracking a student’s on-camera participation of the student’s instructional day is not exclusively on camera. When developing policies related to daily participation and on-camera learning, it is beneficial for LEAs to consider the needs of their students and families.

  1. May the SBE waive any of the requirements in Part 24.5 of Division 3 of Title 2 of the Education Code?

    No, pursuant to EC Section 43511(a), the SBE may not waive any portion of the distant learning provisions.

  2. Can students avail themselves of an independent study program rather than distance learning in the 2020–21 school year? (updated 8/17/20)
    Students can participate in independent study programs during the 2020–21 school year. When offering independent study programs, an LEA will need to ensure that the LEA still meets the statutory distance learning requirements. These requirements include the following:

    • Adopt a learning continuity plan and attendance plan that includes plans for the distance learning program
    • Track and report daily participation
    • Maintain a weekly engagement record for each student documenting synchronous or asynchronous instruction for each whole or partial day of distance learning, verifying daily participation, and tracking assignments
    • Schedule students for a minimum days’ worth of assignments each day as certified to by a certificated employee
    • Develop written procedures for tiered reengagement strategies for all pupils who are absent for more than three schooldays or 60 percent of the instructional days in a school week
    • Provide either daily live interaction or develop an alternative plan for frequent live interaction
    • Confirmation or provision of access for all pupils to connectivity and devices adequate to participate in the educational program and complete assigned work
  1. May the requirement for daily live interaction be met through synchronous learning (e.g., classroom instruction provided through interactive web meetings such as Zoom or Webex)? (added 7/31/20)

    Yes. Pursuant to EC Section 43503(b)(6), synchronous instruction may meet the requirements of daily live interaction, provided the remaining components of daily live interaction are also met. This includes interaction with certificated employees and peers.

Attendance and Absences

  1. What is required if students are not participating regularly in instruction?
    EC Section 43504(f) requires each LEA to develop written procedures for tiered reengagement strategies for all pupils who are absent from distance learning for more than three schooldays or 60 percent of the instructional days in a school week. These procedures shall include, but are not limited, to verification of current contact information for each enrolled pupil, daily notification to parents or guardians of absences, a plan for outreach from the school to determine pupil needs including connection line with health and social services as necessary and, when feasible, line transitioning the pupil to full-time in-person instruction.
  1. Are LEAs required to collect information on absences during distance learning? (added 7/31/20)

    Yes, pursuant to EC Section 52066(d)(5)(a) and (b), LEAs are required to collect information on absences and report absenteeism through CALPADS.

  1. How is the system of attendance support provided to students in Distance Learning different from the system of attendance support provided to students in classroom instruction? (added 8/17/20)

    Compulsory education continues to apply for the 2020–21 school year. The intent of the Legislature is for LEAs to develop a different multi-tiered system of re-engagement for students who miss instruction or who are chronically absent in Distance Learning rather than the system used during classroom instruction. The tiered reengagement strategies should be part of the LEA’s Learning Continuity and Attendance Plan as required by EC sections 43509 (a)(1)(A) and (f)(1)(F).

    Both systems are multi-tiered with universal support, early intervention, and intensive support. However, the intent of the system of tiered reengagement strategies should address the different circumstances students and families are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to Distance Learning. Specifically, the strategies should help LEAs re-engage students and families experiencing trauma, isolation, and a lack of access to the necessary supports to participate and fully engage in school on a daily basis while at home.

    The tiered reengagement strategies that LEAs adopt as part of their Learning Continuity and Attendance Plan should promote a culture of collaboration which includes new ways of communicating with families and should focus on identifying and jointly addressing the barriers that are preventing students from engaging in Distance Learning. To facilitate the implementation of the reengagement strategies, it will be helpful to establish a system to accurately track and record pupil attendance during Distance Learning. The student information system should enable school staff to identify, as early as possible, pupils with different barriers to their attendance so that applicable support services and interventions can be provided.

  1. Are LEAs required to record whether an absence from Distance Learning is excused or unexcused? (added 8/17/20)

    For the 2020–21 school year, LEAs are still required to submit chronic absenteeism data to CALPADS. Whether the instruction is provided in-person or virtually, the collected data should continue to include aggregate counts of excused and unexcused absences from instruction.

    LEAs should develop a local policy as to what constitutes an excused absence in a distance learning context. The policy should be consistent with EC sections 48205 and 48225.5, which specify what constitutes an excused absence. The policy should also be consistent with EC Section 48260(c) which states that an excused absence from school may include reasons that are deemed by the school administrator, based on the student's circumstances, as constituting a valid excuse. Then, in reporting the absences to CALPADS, LEAs would map the absence reasons into the excused and unexcused absence fields based on their local policy as to what constitutes an excused and unexcused absence in the Distance Learning context.

  1. What are some example strategies that an LEA can include in its Learning Continuity and Attendance Plan for reengaging students and reducing our chronic absenteeism rates? (added 8/17/20)

    The CDE School Attendance Improvement Strategies web page lists thirty practices that have a positive effect on student attendance and that can be used in multiple types of learning programs. Attendance practices that LEAs adopt generally fall into one of three categories in a multi-tiered system of support for student attendance:

    • The first tier of the re-engagement plan involves how the district will welcome students and parents and engage them to promote a culture of attendance. This includes raising the awareness of school personnel, parents, guardians, caregivers of the effects of chronic absenteeism and other challenges to full participation in the educational program.
    • The second tier of the plan ensures that students with attendance problems are identified as early as possible to provide applicable support and interventions at the school.
    • The third tier serves students who have exhausted the resources of the school by a referral to the SARB. The SARB is composed of a diverse group of experts who will link the family to any needed school district or community services. The SARB will also identify and respond to grade level or student subgroup patterns of chronic absenteeism and will evaluate the effectiveness of strategies implemented to reduce chronic absenteeism rates.

    In addition, the web page provides two outstanding publications describing interventions based on research with links to studies and examples of schools and districts using successful strategies:

  1. Is the SARB an available option for students who are chronically absent during Distance Learning? (added 8/17/20)

    The system of tiered reengagement strategies adopted as part of the LEA’s Learning Continuity and Attendance Plan should identify the school support services or interventions that may be provided and whether the services will be provided by a school counselor, a school social worker, or a team of other school staff. Attendance issues are most effectively addressed by site personnel working collaboratively with students and families, and most students and families respond well to such support services and interventions provided at the school level.

    However, certain students or families may require more intensive interventions that cannot be easily provided at the school site. For students who exhaust the first tiers of intervention strategies provided by the school, a SARB is an available avenue during distance learning and a referral may be appropriate.

    While SARBs are often associated with the authority to refer truant students and their parents to court, referral of chronic absentees, including students chronically absent from Distance Learning, to the SARB, enables a district and community team of diverse professionals to diagnose the problem and link the student and family to necessary school district or community services, such as mental health services or community health services.

    In Distance Learning, current truancy laws would apply to pupils who are transferred to an available and appropriate in-person instructional program. The truancy laws applicable to students in classroom instruction include the first notification of truancy (EC Section 48260.5), the habitual truant mandate (EC Section 48262), and the penalties for truancy (EC sections 48264.5, 48293, and Penal Code Section 270.1). Visit the CDE's Truancy web page for detailed information on the laws related to truancy.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

  1. How can LEAs secure PPE when they are offering in-person instruction?

    All County Offices of Education received an initial allocation of PPE to support LEAs and expanded learning programs in their county with the initial restart of school, as announced by Governor Newsom on June 5, 2020. LEAs should contact their COE for additional information on this allocation from the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES).

    Cal OES and the Department of General Services are working to provide California Multiple Award Schedules contract vehicles that all LEAs will be able to use to procure PPE at discounted rates secured by the state. Until these contracts are available, the Safely Making California website [invalid link removed] includes a searchable database of manufacturers for face masks, gloves, face shields, sanitizers, and other items.


  1. Will students who are participating in distance learning be provided meals?

    Yes. LEAs are required to provide nutritionally adequate meals for pupils who are eligible for Free and Reduced-Price meals whether engaged in in-person instruction or distance learning. Information regarding meals should be communicated in the language and format the parent understands.

    Please refer to School and Child and Adult Day Care Meals for additional COVID-19 guidance as well FAQs.

English Learners

  1. How are the needs of English learners being met through distance learning?

    English learners must receive designated and integrated English Language Development (ELD), including assessment of English language proficiency, support to access curriculum, the ability to reclassify as fully English proficient, and support for dual language learning.

    The LEAs are to incorporate designated and integrated ELD as part of the core instruction during distance learning model. Students are to continue to be assessed via distance learning to informally assess the progress in ELD pursuant to Section 11300 of Title 5 of the California Code of Regulations for English learners. LEAs are to continue to offer dual language support and language acquisition programs via distance learning. For more information regarding the English Language Proficiency Assesments for California (ELPAC) using social distancing protocols, please see the assessment guidance provided on the CDE COVID–19 Assessment FAQs web page [invalid link removed].

Nonclassroom-based Charter Schools

  1. Are non-classroom-based charter schools programs considered distance learning?

    Nonclassroom-based charter schools do not provide distance learning as defined in EC Section 43500(a). Instead, nonclassroom-based charter schools shall continue to provide independent study pursuant to their charter petition. As a result, these new requirements do not apply to nonclassroom-based charters who were defined as such pursuant to EC Section 47612.5 as of the 2019–20 fiscal year. A nonclassroom-based charter school described in EC Section 47612.5 as of the 2019–20 fiscal year shall continue to comply with all of the statutory requirements in Article 5.5 (commencing with Section 51745) of Chapter 5 of Part 28 of Division 4 and the implementing regulations for that article.

    Senate Bill (SB) 98 does require that a nonclassroom-based charter school to adopt a learning continuity and attendance plan pursuant to EC Section 43509, and shall not be required to adopt a local control and accountability plan pursuant to EC Section 47606.5.

Virtual Schools

  1. Can a school district open a virtual school or an independent study school to serve all students through distance learning? (added 7/31/20)
    Independent study or virtual programs offered as a form of independent study at school districts should be offered as a program, and are not a school type. Although for the 2020–21 school year, a school district is able to meet its instructional day requirements through distance learning and the annual instructional time requirements have been temporarily suspended, the requirement that instruction be under the immediate supervision of a certificated employee to be included in instructional day and minute calculations and the requirement that all students be offered specific annual instructional minutes will be back in effect in 2021–22. These requirements are both district level and site level requirements, which carry a financial penalty for not meeting them. The CDE would advise against opening a virtual or independent study school because school districts can put themselves at risk for potential audit findings and/or fiscal penalties in future years by operating a virtual school.

    In addition, distance learning and independent study are not interchangeable. While there is commonality between the two programs, the distance learning requirements established in Part 24.5, of the EC beginning with Section 43500 are different than the requirements of independent study. In order to establish an existing independent study program as a distance learning program for 2020–21, that independent study program would need to meet both independent study requirements and distance learning requirements.

Individualized Education Programs

  1. Are there new requirements related to Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and distance learning? (added 8/4/20)

    Yes. EC Section 56345 was amended by SB 98 (Chapter 24, Statutes of 2020) to require that IEPs include a description of the means by which the IEP will be provided under emergency conditions, in which instruction or services, or both, cannot be provided to the pupil either at the school or in person for more than 10 school days. This description must be included in the development of each initial IEP or addressed during the regularly scheduled revision of an IEP, and must take public health orders into account.

    SB 98 included other notable changes related to special education and distance learning. Please refer to the related guidance posted on the CDE website for more information.

Questions:   California Department of Education |
Last Reviewed: Tuesday, September 13, 2022
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