Distance learning is dead. Long live distance learning — or something like it.

Last week, a waiver allowing California schools to engage in distance learning expired — putting the state on track to resume full-time in-person instruction in the fall. But on Monday, state lawmakers introduced an amended budget bill that would require schools to offer independent study programs for students who don’t yet feel comfortable returning to the classroom.

The bill, which lawmakers could send to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk as early as Thursday, would beef up the state’s existing independent study program by setting higher curriculum and teacher credentialing standards, requiring at least some live instruction and mandating that schools offer devices and internet connections to students who need them. But some advocates doubt the proposal will achieve its goal of offering an educational experience equal to in-person learning.

The challenges of remote learning were made clear by a bill Newsom signed into law Thursday, which allows students to make up for pandemic learning loss by repeating a grade level, switching low marks to pass/no pass or taking a fifth year of high school. But even as the governor and lawmakers vowed an end to distance learning and said 99% of schools would reopen full-time in the fall, they shied away from a mandate, noting that many communities hard-hit by the virus are reluctant to send their kids back to campus. Those anxieties have likely grown as the highly contagious Delta variant becomes the dominant COVID-19 strain in California and coronavirus case rates tick back up.

Even without the independent study option, California’s schools would likely have been emptier than usual in the fall. Public school enrollment hit a 20-year low amid the pandemic as more than 160,000 students exited the system, while the number of families filing an affidavit to open a private home school skyrocketed. Those trends could pose serious financial challenges for California’s public school system, even as it prepares to rake in record funding this year.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 3,713,944 confirmed cases (+0.05% from previous day) and 63,141 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to a CalMatters tracker.

California has administered 41,967,497 vaccine doses, and 59.6% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

Plus: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. We’re also tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county and lawsuits against COVID-19 restrictions.

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1. Could Newsom’s accelerated recall backfire?

Gov. Gavin Newsom looks over his notes before speaking at a press conference at The Unity Council in Oakland on May 10, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

When Newsom signed a bill to move up the date of his own recall election, it was an indication both he and the Democrat-dominated Legislature are banking on the idea that an earlier election could help him stay in office. But there’s also a chance the Sept. 14 date could backfire: Newsom now has less time to rally Democratic voters, who appear significantly less enthused about the election than Republicans. A recent poll from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found a whopping 75% of Republicans are highly interested in the recall, compared to just 36% of Democrats, a discrepancy reinforced by a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll.

2. EDD work spills over to lawmakers

Image via iStock

Months after California’s unemployment agency expanded its call center hours and announced plans to hire nearly 1,000 new employees, people are still having such a hard time getting through the Employment Development Department’s jammed phone lines that state assemblymembers were recently given the green light to hire two staffers each to handle EDD problems, the Sacramento Bee reports. It’s the latest sign that conditions are largely not improving at the beleaguered agency, which answered only 8% of the more than 3 million calls it received for the week ending June 26 — during which each person called an average of 11.4 times to get through. And while EDD’s backlog of unresolved claims shrunk last week, more than 1.1 million remain in limbo.

Meanwhile, the department is preparing to take on yet another task: determining whether the estimated 350,000 Californians who are self-employed but also work salaried jobs part-time qualify for an extra $100 weekly benefit.

3. Animal crossings coming to California

A rendering of the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing. Photo courtesy of National Wildlife Federation/Living Habitats

Picture this: You’re whizzing down Highway 101 while mountain lions, deer, rabbits, lizards and other animals meander on paths 17 feet above your head. This seemingly fantastical vision recently got a step closer to reality when Newsom signed a budget that includes $7 million to help build the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing, a bridge that would allow animals to safely cross the 10-lane freeway that cuts through the Santa Monica Mountains and roars with 300,000 cars each day, CalMatters’ Marissa Garcia reports. The budget includes another $54.5 million for similar projects across the state, though many of them have yet to be identified. The Liberty Canyon crossing illustrates both the challenges and promise of such endeavors: It’s facing financial and architectural hurdles, but is also likely California’s best shot of bringing an isolated, inbred population of mountain lions back from near-certain extinction.

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CalMatters events

July 13: How can California support its small businesses as they recover from a recession and global pandemic? Join a CalMatters and Milken Institute virtual conversation with leading policymakers, including Small Business Administration Administrator Isabel Casillas Guzman. Register here.

CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: The state budget makes clear that Newsom and lawmakers favor the left in a culture war over how to handle crime.

Protecting our troops: California must pass legislation to make it clear that sexual harassment is punishable within its military ranks, write Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis and state Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman, a Stockton Democrat.

Gun shows don’t belong on state fairgrounds: It is morally reprehensible for California to continue to promote gun violence by allowing the sale of guns and ammunition on taxpayer-owned property, argues state Sen. Dave Min, an Irvine Democrat.

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Other things worth your time

Former Fontana city manager made nearly $1 million without working a day in 2020. // Daily News

Lobbyist seeks $2M fee for work on behalf of insurer that donated to state’s insurance regulator. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Unprecedented lobbying effort scores big win for California public health. // California Healthline

Why is a San Diego teachers union trying to get rid of half a school board? // San Diego Union-Tribune

Bipartisan resolution would study California’s antitrust laws. // Paso Robles Daily News

Federal probe of American Indian boarding schools reflects dark chapter in U.S., California history. // San Bernardino Sun

Governor appoints first Indigenous woman to commission advocating for women and girls. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Firefighters continue to battle blazes across California. // Los Angeles Times

Gavin Newsom oversold California’s fire prevention efforts. A journalist uncovered the truth. // The Guardian

Why did FEMA reject 95% of aid applicants during California’s last wildfire disaster? // CapRadio

California is restoring electric car rebates, but some environmentalists aren’t happy. // San Francisco Chronicle

Hemp farmers get the hint they’re not welcome in Contra Costa. // Mercury News

Drought: The end of California’s groundwater free-for-all. // Mercury News

A dry California creek bed looked like a wildfire risk. Then the beavers went to work. // Sacramento Bee

Joy, anxiety as third wolf pack enters California. // SFGATE

See you tomorrow.

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Emily Hoeven wrote the daily WhatMatters newsletter for three years at CalMatters . Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco...