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CDE Currents: July/August 2020

Tony’s Message
Health and Safety
New Tool for Assessments
Distance Learning & Digital Divide
Ethnic Studies
Heather Calomese

Tony’s Message

Tony Thurmond

This year’s back-to-school period is unlike any we have ever experienced. At a time when teachers and staff would normally be welcoming students into their classrooms, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced most of our schools to begin the year from a safe, virtual distance. Dozens more schools have had their plans interrupted by wildfires.

To all of our students, schools, educators, and partners, I want you to know that my team at the California Department of Education (CDE) will continue to have your back as we weather these challenges together.

In this issue of our monthly newsletter, CDE Currents, we go in-depth into some of the myriad ways we are supporting our school communities.

To help our educators strengthen and accelerate learning in a virtual environment, our team at CDE has updated its guidance for distance learning. We also have provided tools to educators so they can get a snapshot of where students are in their learning within key content areas when they resume school, which will help them better target learning gaps.

In the meantime, as our nation is gripped with racial unrest and calls for justice, our classrooms can provide a path forward to healing and justice. That’s why we, alongside prominent civil rights leaders, put forth recommendations for a model ethnic studies curriculum we believe can lift up the voices of those whose contributions have for too long been overshadowed in education.

Finally, I hope you’ll spend a few minutes reading an inspiring Q&A with the newest member of Team CDE: Heather Calomese, our new Director of the Special Education Division. Heather is an accomplished and strong advocate and champion for all students. She brings to the position extensive experience with equity and human rights and social justice issues and has an interesting personal and professional journey that gives her a unique lens for this important work.

At the CDE, we will continue to listen to your needs and support you through each development. Thank you to all of our educators, families, and partners for coming together when our students need us the most.

Tony Thurmond's Signature

Back to the Classroom with Caution

Health & Safety are Top Priorities for Re-opening Schools

The school year has begun for nearly all of California’s 6.2 million students, and most are in distance learning. However, many schools in counties moving off of the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list are preparing for the possibility of modified forms of in-person learning.   

If COVID-19 wasn’t enough, wildfires raged across much of Northern California this month and impacted many school communities as they began the school year. Schools that are considering re-opening not only have to contend with possible smoke or fire damage but implement safe practices for preventing the transmission of COVID-19. The following includes information for schools in both areas, along information for the in-person learning waivers and small cohort for children and youth guidelines overseen by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH).

Cleaning Up After a Wildfire

The California Department of Education (CDE) advises all local educational agencies (LEAs) with school sites located within a burn zone or evacuation area to assess and determine the appropriate mitigation measures on each school site.

For the most part, schools should ensure that any potential interior smoke or ash from each school site has been cleared. Basic cleaning measures may be appropriate for some sites, such as replacement of air filters. Other sites may need professional remediation, such as removal and disposal of outdoor accumulated soot and/or ash. Employees should not touch ash or contaminated material. The CDE encourages LEAs to consult with legal counsel to ensure contracts for assessment and remediation work are properly put in place.

Schools not physically damaged by fire need to be evaluated to ensure that the buildings and grounds are safe and healthy prior to students returning. Areas to assess include clean-up for smoke damage, fire retardant clean-up and soot/ash; disposal of stored food, debris and hazardous materials; removal of damaged trees; and working utilities (sewer, water, electricity, cable, phone, Internet, etc.).

In general, buildings otherwise safe for re-occupancy should be cleaned using water and a mild cleaner and HEPA filtered vacuums. Depending on the scope and complexity of the clean-up effort and the availability of staff, a school may need to consider a professional restoration contractor.

More information can be found in the documents How to Clean Up Smoke and Soot from a Fire from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and Wildfire Smoke - A Guide for Public Health Officials  from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the CDPH.

Safe Practices for COVID-19

Nearly everyone agrees that the best place for children to learn is in the classroom connected with caring teachers and staff. Schools are a critical driver to the health and vitality of communities and a vital component to households returning to work. However, schools should open only if it is safe to do so. Science, data, and safety must guide any decision about reopening a school.

If schools are located within in a county that is not on the COVID-19 County Monitoring List , and the required 14 days have passed from being off that list, LEAs still must work closely with their local health officials in making the decision to safely reopen their schools. All staff and students should wear cloth face coverings or face shields while at school or on a bus, and maintain six feet of physical distance during school activities.

When the decision is made to reopen, LEAs will need to establish clear plans and protocols to ensure the safety of students and staff. Knowing there is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution for opening schools across California’s more than 1,000 school districts, the CDE—using the best and latest public heath guidance available—created a comprehensive checklist of health and safety items for school leaders to use.

Keep in mind this checklist is statewide guidance. The final decision to reopen a school  will be made by each LEA working closely with local health officials and community stakeholders, including families, staff, and labor partners.

LEAs should consider the following:

  • Local Conditions to Guide Reopening Decisions
  • Plan to Address Positive COVID-19 Cases or Community Surges
  • Injury and Illness Prevention Program
  • Campus Access
  • Hygiene
  • Protective Equipment
  • Physical Distancing
  • Cleaning/Disinfecting
  • Employee Issues
  • Communication with Students, Parents, Employees, Public Health Officials, and the Community

More details on these checklist items can be found in the Health and Safety section of the CDE’s Stronger Together: A Guidebook for the Safe Reopening of California's Public Schools.

In-Person Learning Waivers

For schools located in counties that are on the COVID-19 County Monitoring List, there is an in-person learning waiver from the CDPH for schools in grades TK-6.  It should be noted that the CDE is not overseeing this waiver and all requests for additional information should go to the CDPH.

The waiver could allow some elementary schools in listed counties to conduct in-person learning if they could meet stringent health requirements. Schools applying for the waiver must show they consulted with parent, labor, and community organizations at each school site.

Reopening plans for the waiver must address, at a minimum, plans for cleaning and disinfection, coordinating movement within school, face coverings and protective equipment, health screenings, healthy hygiene practices, contact tracing, physical distancing, staff training and family education, testing, communication plans and triggers for switching to distance learning.

The position of the California Department of Education (CDE) is clear: this waiver process needs to be managed at the local level. School reopening plans will nearly always differ based on regional context and local health directives related to COVID-19. The CDE urges caution if considering an in-person waiver but will always respect local decisions.

Inquiries regarding the in-person waivers for schools should be directed to the CDPH which is overseeing the waiver process. More information on the waivers can be found on the CDPH website.

Guidelines for Small Groups of Children and Youth

The CDPH has released guidance for managing small cohorts or groups of children and youth.

The guidance applies to groups in controlled, supervised, and indoor environments operated by LEAs, non-profits, or other authorized providers, including, but not limited to, public and private schools; licensed and license-exempt child care settings; organized and supervised care environments, i.e., "distance learning hubs"; recreation programs; before and after school programs; youth groups; and day camps.

Like in-person learning waivers, the CDE is not overseeing the implementation of these guidelines. All inquiries should go to the CDPH. For more information, check the CDPH’s FAQ page for these new guidelines.

New Assessment Tools Help Educators

Millions of students across California have had their lives disrupted due to the pandemic. How has that affected their academic knowledge?

Educators have new tools at their disposal to help answer that question as the school year begins and most students are again in distance learning. As students resume learning, educators need to know where the students are academically, especially disadvantaged and vulnerable students, many of whom already experienced barriers to learning before the pandemic.

The new tools can be found in a document titled Implementation Tool: Guidance on Diagnostic and Formative Assessments. The assessment tools are aligned with state standards and connected to instructional supports that can help teachers adjust instruction to meet student needs.

These assessment tools include:

  • The Smarter Balanced assessment system, developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium External link opens in new window or tab. , which is freely available to all public school districts, schools, and teachers in California, focusing on:
    • Interim assessments, designed to support teaching and learning throughout the school year
    • Tools for Teachers External link opens in new window or tab. , a website designed to support classroom-based formative assessment practices
  • Practice and training tests for CAASPP External link opens in new window or tab. and ELPAC External link opens in new window or tab.
  • Diagnostic assessments approved for grade two that have the capacity to assess student progress across a longer continuum of performance, typically covering the English Language Arts and mathematics domains in kindergarten through grade eight or kindergarten through grade twelve.

In addition to assessments, teachers may use multiple measures from various data sources such as district, school, and classroom assessments; narrative report cards; essays; and class projects to determine where students are in their learning and identify areas in which they may need additional support.

The Implementation Tool: Guidance on Diagnostic and Formative Assessments is included in the CDE’s Stronger Together: A Guidebook for the Safe Reopening of California's Public Schools.

Closing the Digital Divide with map of California.

Distance Learning & Digital Divide Update

Distance learning will likely be a part of California education in the foreseeable future, even as schools reopen in various capacities. Some schools may be ready to open in a hybrid model. Other schools may choose continue primarily in distance learning. It will depend on individual circumstances, readiness, and safety.

In the meantime, the California Department of Education (CDE) is committed to supporting success in distance learning and closing the digital divide. In August, the CDE released new guidance to support educators that are implementing distance learning instruction. The new guidance addresses key areas such as clear definitions of instructional models and language, an overview of required daily minutes for the 2020-21 school year and considerations for instruction both with live interaction and without live interaction, research-based principles for school districts to consider as they prepare to re-open, and ideas for how educators may structure learning.

In addition, more than 350 teachers from over 125 school districts have responded to a CDE survey sharing their successes in distance learning. The examples showcasing the creativity, rigor, structure, and meaningful student and parent connections made through successful distance learning strategies will be published on the CDE website and social media channels in the coming weeks

On the Digital Divide front, Apple and T-Mobile are ready to deliver 100,000 or more internet-enabled devices in the next four to six weeks. This will help alleviate the demand as 300,000 laptops are on backorder for school districts. The CDE is continuing work with local educational agencies and manufacturers to free up inventory where possible and continuing to work with county offices of education to asses updated device need throughout their districts. So far, more than 78,000 computing devices and 100,000 connectivity devices have been donated to more than 300 districts and schools statewide.

If you would like to support CDE’s effort to close the Digital Divide, or if you have questions, please email us at

Ethnic Studies Update

Last month, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond was joined by students, lawmakers, and civil rights leaders when he presented recommendations to the CDE’s draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, a guide that will give educators the tools they need to advance racial and social justice in the classroom and beyond.

The presentation was made at the August 13, 2020, meeting of the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC), an advisory body to the State Board of Education (SBE). And it marked the first in a series of opportunities for public input on the CDE’s recommendations before final adoption next year.

Conversations about ethnic studies have increased recently as the country continues to grapple with the many impacts of institutional racism—which include the contributions of people of color being minimized or not included at all in history curriculums. This makes it difficult for minority students to realize or even imagine their own potential for success, as they are unable to learn about the contributions of their communities in school or at home.

“Our schools have not always been a place where students can gain a full understanding of the contributions of people of color and the many ways throughout history—and present day—that our country has exploited, marginalized, and oppressed them. At a time when people across the nation are calling for a fairer, more just society, we must empower and equip students and educators to have these courageous conversations in the classroom,” said Thurmond. “I am proud to submit these recommendations for a draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum that will not only serve as a roadmap for educators but, hopefully, inspire action across the nation.”

The CDE recommends that the model curriculum remain rooted in four foundational disciplines of ethnic studies: African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Chicano Latino Studies, and Native American Studies. The CDE also recommends the draft include educator resources for engaging in expanded, critical conversations that can be customized to reflect a school community’s diversity and engage in broader social justice issues.

The recommendations and proposed edits were informed after reviewing tens of thousands of public comments, learning from ethnic studies subject matter experts and thought leaders, listening to educators, and engaging with students across the state. California is required by law to develop a model curriculum in ethnic studies to be utilized as a guide and outline for schools as they consider implementing ethnic studies courses. This guide will help districts and schools as they begin to develop their own ethnic studies curriculum reflecting their student demographics and community.

The IQC took action on August 13, 2020, to post revised draft chaptersfora 30-day period ofpublic review prior to taking action later this year to recommend the model curriculum to the SBE. State law requires the SBE to take final action on the model curriculum by March 31, 2021.­­ More information on the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum can be found on the CDE Model Curriculum Projects web page, and the full draft curriculum can be found on the IQC’s August meeting web page. Public comments on the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum are now open and ­­­­­should be directed to [Note: Invalid email address removed].

Heather Calomese Director, Special Education Division

A Current Conversation with: Heather Calomese
Director, Special Education Division

“Heather is an accomplished leader in the special education field and a strong advocate and champion for all students. She believes that individuals should be lifted and supported to access the greatness that lies within.” -State Superintendent Tony Thurmond

When Heather Calomese decided to make a career switch, she knew she wanted to work in education. A self-described lifelong special educator, over the last two decades Calomese moved from making a difference in the classroom as a special education teacher to having an impact at the state level as the Executive Director of Special Education for the Illinois State Board of Education. In that role, Calomese focused on the alignment of systems and supports for students receiving early childhood, multilingual, and special education services.

Now as the Director of the Special Education Division for the California Department of Education (CDE), Calomese brings to her new position a deep familiarity with complex special education laws, policies, and monitoring matters. She also has extensive experience working with special education advisory councils, data governance, finance, and a broad cross-section of stakeholders.

Cynthia Butler with CDE Currents caught up with Heather for a Current Conversation to discuss her plans and direction for the Special Education Division.


CB: Heather, you have an education background, but you didn’t start your career in education. What did you do before making a career switch?

HC: Before education, I played professional volleyball in Austria for two years between undergraduate and graduate school.Before graduate school, I lived in New York City and was a journalist at a small weekly newspaper.

CB: Before you became an administrator, you were a teacher. What subjects did you teach and where?

HC: I taught English and special education in Iowa City, Iowa, and I was a special education middle and high school teacher in the Chicago Public School District.

CB: Why did you want to pursue a career in special education?

HC: I pursued a career in special education because I love that the fact thatit truly takes a team approach to solve many of the complex issues within the field. I also pursued a career in special education because the issues the field faces are very much human rights and social justice issues.

CB: What do you find most rewarding about working in the special education field?

HC: While I enjoy all aspects of working in the special education field, I find that my stance of first being an advocate and a champion for all students and families has been the most rewarding.

CB: You come to the CDE from Illinois. From a state perspective, what are some of the differenceswithin special education?

HC: Many of the issues are similar but have a different context.However, some of the key differences between Illinois and California are the funding mechanisms/structures within special education—there are many more charter schools serving special education students in California than Illinois—and that some of the statewide systems of support are structured differently (i.e., SELPAs, County Offices of Education, etc.).

CB: Why did you want to work for CDE?

HC: I wanted to work for the CDE because of the emphasis the agencyhas placed on improving outcomes for students with disabilities. This role goes beyond a placeholder on an organizational chart; special education is embedded into the overall framework of how the agency supports the needs of the field.Special education is not an afterthought.

CB: What are you most excited about in your new position?

HC: I am most excited about engaging in extremely difficult work across different regions within our state.By that, I mean the needs in various areas of the state differ, and I love that the role will allow me to cultivate deep, two-way relationships in order to accomplish a common goal of student success.

CB: What are some issues or action items that you want to address immediately?

HC: There are so many! I believe it's important for me to cultivate authentic relationships across the CDE and the state of California.The complexity of our work requires strong relationships that can withstand pandemics, social justice issues, competing priorities/demands, and limited resources. Being that it’s the start of a new school year, it’s critical that the Special Education Division continue to focus on providing relevant, timely, and actionable guidance to the field.Concurrently, I know that addressing issues with special education funding is critical and foundational to our work. I also think it will be important for us to design/finalize a monitoring system that is aligned and coordinated with other statewide systems of support in the field while also remaining compliant with our federal IDEA requirements.Finally, I have an interest in enhancing resources and supports for English learners with disabilities as there are great opportunities for innovative work across program areas.

CB: You’ve mentioned your role as an advocate. Why is that integral to what you do?

HC: I believe it's foundational that special educators are fierce advocates for the students, families, and communities they serve. Being an advocate allows me to approach any topic in the field (funding, policy, systemic change/improvement) with an unwavering focus on what's best for students, families, and entities that serve them.

CB: What do enjoy doing when you are not working? To unwind and relax?

HC: I enjoy spending time with my family, long-distance cycling, reading, cooking, music, tackling the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle,hiking, and traveling.


CDE Currents is the monthly newsletter from the California Department of Education. It is written and produced by CDE employees.

Editor: Scott Roark
Co-Editors: Dina Fong, Jonathan Mendick, Katina Oliphant
Writers: Cynthia Butler, Dan Thigpen, Dina Fong, Jonathan Mendick, Scott Roark

Design and Layout: Scott Roark
Illustration: Jesse Nix
Web Production: CDE Web Services Office

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Questions:   Communication |
Last Reviewed: Tuesday, August 03, 2021
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