Right to In-Person School

10 Key Questions

During the 2022-23 school year, parents and guardians can choose to have their children return to school for in-person instruction or enroll in “independent study.” Here are key questions for you to ask yourselves and your child’s school staff to figure out which learning option is best for your child. You can ask your school for a “pupil-parent-educator conference” during which you can ask these and other questions.

  1. Will my home school or school district offer independent study?
  2. How can I enroll my child in independent study mid-year, if needed? What is the process for my child to re-enroll in in-person instruction during the school year if my situation changes?
  3. What classes, programs, extracurricular activities and school site services will the district offer to students enrolled in independent study?
  4. How will enrollment in independent study affect my child’s ability to advance grades and/or graduate?
  5. How much daily live interaction or daily synchronous learning will my child receive?
  6. How will the district monitor and support my child’s attendance, academic progress, and social-emotional well-being during independent study?
  7. What data and records will the district maintain related to my child’s participation in independent study?
  8. What will the district do if my child is unable to follow their written independent study agreement? What services will they provide?
  9. For what reasons and how might the district discipline my child during enrollment in independent study?
  10. If my child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Section 504 plan, is houseless, is in foster care, is an English learner, or otherwise needs additional help, which services and accommodations will the district provide to my child during independent study and in what amounts/frequency? Will the district provide any services in person even if my child enrolls in independent study?

What is Independent Study?

Due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, during the 2022-23 school year and beyond, distance learning through independent study will remain an option for students. County offices of education and school districts (collectively, “school districts”) have the option to offer independent study to certain students who need to engage in remote, instead of in-person, learning. For example, students whose health would be at risk by returning to school in-person will be able to go to school through independent study.

For decades, independent study has been an optional program that California school districts, county offices of education and charter schools could provide to students. However, to accommodate families’ desire for distance learning, the state changed the law to expand who can enroll in independent study and to improve certain aspects of it for the upcoming school year and into the future.

Here are important things to know about your and your child’s rights and your school district’s responsibilities if you are interested in the independent study option for your child.

Who is eligible for independent study?      

If you determine that your child’s health would be put at risk by in-person instruction, your child is eligible for independent study. Your child may also take independent study if they need special assignments to extend regular coursework, individualized study in an area of interest not offered in the school curriculum, have special circumstances during significant travel, or want to participate in volunteer and leadership activities that support their learning.

Do all schools have to offer independent study?

No. Although almost all school districts had to offer independent study during the 2021-22 school year moving forward school districts have the option to offer independent study. Independent study may be offered by a school in your district, a charter school, a school in another district in the same or an adjacent county, or your area’s county office of education. To find out if your district, county office of education, or other districts in your area offer independent study, please call the appropriate office directly. Access to independent study in another district may require an inter-district transfer agreement. The California Department of Education (CDE) has instructions on how to find independent study options: https://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/eo/is/howtofindis.asp.

Do charter schools have to offer independent study?

Charter schools have the option of offering independent study, but they are not required to. If your child attends a charter school that is not offering independent study and you do not feel it is safe for your child to return to school in-person, you may enroll your child in a different charter school or a school district or county office of education that offers it. The California Department of Education (CDE) has instructions on how to find a charter school with independent study that serves your area: https://www.cde.ca.gov/ds/si/cs/ap1/imagemap.aspx

How is “homeschool” different from independent study, and how do I enroll my child in it?

Homeschool is an option for you to privately educate your child at home, providing all curriculum, instruction, and materials. Homeschool differs from independent study in that students are not actually enrolled at their local public school, and you as a parent or guardian are responsible for designing and implementing curriculum. Because California law does not actually authorize home schooling, it is up to local school districts to recognize your child as exempt from mandatory public school to be homeschooled.

To enroll your child in homeschool, you must first file a Private School Affidavit with the Superintendent of Public Instruction of their school district. Then, the public school district listed in the Affidavit decides whether your child is exempt from public school due to their enrollment in a full-time day school (your homeschool). The annually required Affidavit becomes available October 1, after the school year begins; thus, if you are a first-time Affidavit filer, you should notify the school district attendance officer to communicate your intent to school at home. The filing period is October 1-15, though the system remains open throughout the school year. Though the CDE does not offer guidance on homeschool curriculum, content standards and curriculum frameworks can be found online. Visit CDE’s website to learn more: https://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/ps/psfaq.asp#D.

What Would Independent Study Look Like for My Child, and Would It Meet My Child’s Specific Needs?

Is independent study right for my child?

Independent study is very different from in-person instruction, so you should carefully think about whether it will meet your child’s academic and social-emotional needs. You should ask your district to provide as much information as you need about independent study to decide whether it will be right for your child. For example, consider the availability of supervision of your child during the school day, your child’s ability to complete work independently during “asynchronous” learning time, your child’s interest in participating in extracurricular or social activities, and your child’s ability to access special services or supports remotely. Involve your child and other key adults in their life in the enrollment decision-making process. See How Does My Child Enroll in or Leave Independent Study? below for more information.

Will my child have access to teachers or other live instruction in independent study?

Different schools will offer different levels of instruction. The law sets minimum levels of interaction, which differ by grade level, but many schools will offer more. Types of interaction include:

  • Independent, asynchronous learning (students complete assigned work on their own without real-time support from school staff);
  • Synchronous instruction (students receive classroom-style, small group, or one-on-one instruction in real time, including two-way communication, with their teacher); and
  • Live interaction (students connect with school staff – not necessarily their teacher – to maintain school connectedness, including but not limited to wellness checks, progress monitoring, provision of services, or instruction).

Note that your child may, but does not have to, have opportunities for interaction with other students.

Grade LevelRequired Modes of Instruction
Transitional kindergarten – 3Daily synchronous instruction and asynchronous learning
4-8Daily live interaction, at least weekly synchronous instruction, and asynchronous learning
9-12At least weekly synchronous instruction and asynchronous learning

School districts’ written policies for independent study may include additional rules about types of interaction, such as any instructional minute requirements for synchronous instruction. Contact your child’s school administrator and/or ask questions during your pupil-parent-educator conference meeting to learn about the rules in your specific program.

How will school districts ensure that my child is receiving a quality education in independent study?

School districts offering independent study must ensure that students participating in independent study have the same access to appropriate services and resources as all other students in the school to successfully complete their independent study. Services and resources may include but are not limited to:

  • Designated learning center or study area staffed by trained personnel
  • Services of qualified personnel to assess the achievement, abilities, interests, and needs of participants to determine whether full-time independent study is the most appropriate placement for the referred pupil

Independent study curriculum must be aligned to grade level standards and substantially equivalent to the level of quality and challenge of in-person instruction. In other words, the quality of education your child receives in independent study must be the same as other students receive in-person. School districts must also have a written policy describing how they will measure the academic progress of students enrolled in independent study. If your child is not progressing enough through independent study, the school should reevaluate whether they should be in independent study.

Satisfactory educational progress must be determined based on, at minimum:

  • Your child’s achievement and engagement;
  • Completion of assignments and assessments;
  • Teacher’s determination of whether your child is learning required concepts;
  • Teacher’s determination of whether your child is progressing toward completion of course of study.

What can I do if my child is not receiving adequate interaction or quality of education in independent study?

If your child is not receiving appropriate interaction or quality of education, you should immediately contact the school staff who signed the independent study written agreement and notify them of the problems, preferably in writing. You should request a meeting to discuss how the school will fix the situation, including but not limited to changing the type or increasing the amount of teacher and peer interaction and adding remedial instruction to make up for lost instructional time or inadequate quality. If this process does not result in the appropriate changes within a reasonable time, you should make a written complaint to the school district through its local complaint procedures and forward that complaint to the county office of education, the California Department of Education independent study division ([email protected]), and the CDE School Fiscal Services division ([email protected]).

School districts that do not comply with the above interaction and quality of education requirements may have to pay back money they received for independent study. Compliance is monitored through the school district’s annual audit process.

Can my child face discipline for being late to live instruction during independent study or for being absent?

Yes; nothing in state law stops schools from disciplining students for truancy or absence. You should request that the independent study written agreement include clear guidance on when and how your child will be disciplined for truancy or absence. You should also keep track of when your child seems to be facing discipline in remote settings, such as being asked to leave a Zoom classroom, in case the school district is not tracking such actions as formal discipline in school records. Finally, school districts must engage in tiered reengagement strategies to support students (meaning they should try other things to get students back on track), as described below, if students are not attending for more than 10% of required minimum instructional time over four continuous weeks, are found not participatory in synchronous instructional offerings for more than 50% of scheduled instruction in a school month, or in violation of the written agreement. Procedures to address chronic absenteeism must include at minimum:

  • Verification of current student contact information
  • Notification to parents/guardians of lack of participation within one school day of the nonattendance or lack of participation
  • Outreach plan from the school to determine pupil needs
  • Clear standard for requiring pupil-parent-educator conference to review a student’s written agreement and to reconsider the independent study program’s impact on student achievement and well being

You can ask your district which specific strategies they will use to reengage your child instead of, or before they take, disciplinary action.

Can my child access extracurricular activities in independent study?

State law does not require that students in independent study have access to extracurricular activities. However, the school district board policy may include information about this access. If your child is not receiving access to extracurricular activities, you should ask your school’s staff if they can allow your child to participate.

Will my child be able to meet requirements for college admissions if enrolled in independent study?

Yes. High school students who are enrolled in independent study must have access to all courses required by their school district for graduation. They must also have access to all “A-G” requirements offered by the school, which are a sequence of courses that students must take to be minimally eligible for admission to the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU).

Will my child’s school provide them with all the technology and materials they need to access independent study?

Yes, your child’s school must offer them all the technology they need to access their educational program. For example, the school must provide, free of charge, any laptops, tablets, software, books, stationary, internet access, or anything else that is needed to participate in instruction.

How Does My Child Enroll in or Leave Independent Study?

How can I request independent study for my child?

If you or your child aged 18 years or older believe they are eligible for independent study because of risks to their health or other eligibility criteria, you should contact the designated district or school staff person to request enrollment in independent study.

As a parent or guardian, you have a right to have a “pupil-parent-educator conference meeting” prior to enrollment, during which you and your child, along with an education advocate if you request one, meet with school staff and can ask questions about your child’s instructional options before making an enrollment decision.

Can I enroll my child in independent study in the middle of the school year?

Yes, schools should allow you to enroll your child in independent study after the beginning of the school year, particularly if your child’s health or family situations change. You should contact your child’s school administrator to request independent study and explain the reason why you would like to transition. If a school resists letting your child enroll in independent study in the middle of the semester, you can request an inter-district transfer to another school that offers independent study.

What paperwork must be completed before my child enrolls in independent study?

Your child must have a written independent study agreement in place before they begin independent study. The agreement must be signed before instruction commences.

The written agreement must include, at minimum:

  • How your child should submit assignments;
  • How academic progress will be reported and communicated to you;
  • What courses your child will study and how your child will be evaluated;
  • Resources (materials and personnel), including wireless connectivity and technology devices, that will be provided to your child;
  • Expectations for your child’s educational progress;
  • Beginning and end dates for independent study, not to exceed one school year;
  • Course credits or other achievement measures your child will receive;
  • Academic and other supports for students not performing at grade level, or students who are English learners, have an Individualized Education Program or Section 504 plan, are in foster care, are experiencing homelessness, and/or require mental health supports; and
  • A statement confirming that independent study is voluntary.

    What happens if my child is unable to follow their independent study agreement?

    School districts must implement tiered reengagement strategies for students who are not able to follow their independent study agreements. In other words, they must try to reach out to and support your child to get them back on track, including providing additional services and supports that will help them succeed in independent study. School districts must have written board policies that describe their reengagement strategies, which must include, at minimum:

    • Verification of current contact information for you and your child;
    • Notification to you of lack of participation within one school day of the lack of participation;
    • A plan for outreach to your child with resources, including health and social services (for example, meetings with a counselor or social worker) if needed; and
    • A standard for when a pupil-parent-educator conference should take place to revisit and potentially change the independent study written agreement.

    How can my child leave independent study and move back to in-person instruction?

    School districts must have a plan to transition pupils whose families wish to return to in-person instruction from independent study no later than five days after the request to re-enroll. Unless a school is closed due to quarantine rules or a natural disaster, in-person instruction is the default for all schools, so it should be readily available to your child should you want them to transition.

    My Child Needs Additional Services, Such as Special Education or English Learner Supports. Can My Child’s Needs Be Met in Independent Study?

    Can my child with disabilities enroll in and receive services through independent study?

    Yes, so long as their Individualized Education Program (IEP) specifically provides for independent study enrollment. If your child has an IEP and would like to enroll in independent study, you should ask the IEP team to get together as soon as possible. Legally, this meeting should occur within 30 days of your request for an IEP meeting. You should discuss whether changing the delivery method of your child’s special education placement and services in their IEP to independent study can meet their needs.

    School districts have a legal duty to provide children with disabilities with a free appropriate public education (FAPE) that meets all of their education-related needs (e.g., academic, social, emotional, language development, etc.). When considering independent study, it is important to identify every service offered in the IEP prior to independent study, including the amount of service offered. Then compare this to the amount of the same service offered in an independent study program to decide whether independent study can meet your child’s needs. Under the law, a child’s inability to work independently, need for adult support, or need for special education or related services should not preclude the IEP team from determining that the child can receive FAPE in an independent study placement. That being said, it may be difficult for the school district to provide certain services (e.g., specialized academic instruction or special day class) that require many minutes per day/week (e.g., 6 hours per day) of the service, in an independent study program. Other services (e.g., speech and language, occupational therapy, school-based counseling) that are provided during a smaller part of the school week (e.g., 30 or 60 minutes per week) may be more possible for a school district to offer through independent study.

    If your child has a Section 504 plan, you should request that their 504 plan explicitly states whether they can enroll in independent study and what, if any, changes to accommodations must be made when they are in independent study. As described in How Does My Child Enroll in or Leave Independent Study? above, the school must describe in the independent study written agreement how the independent study program is consistent with and supports your child’s IEP or 504 plan and how your child will access required services and accommodations while enrolled in independent study.

    If your child is a student with a disability and you believe that they should be in school in-person in order to access their special education and related services, make sure school district staff does not pressure you into transferring your child to independent study. You have the right to choose which model works best for your child.

    Can my child who is an English learner enroll in and receive needed services through independent study?

    Yes, the independent study written agreement must include how the school will provide academic and other supports to English learners, including designated and integrated English language development. You should make sure that the agreement includes all the services your child needs.

    resources for more information

    Updated October 2022 by ACLU of Southern California, National Center for Youth Law, and Education Law Project at Stanford Law School