"I think that if school opened tomorrow, most of our districts would open in distance learning," said Thurmond. "And that is a decision that I think is a good decision if conditions don't change right now."
Thurmond called for "an abundance of caution" as many of California's 1,000 school districts finalize plans for the new school term.
"In any place where there is uncertainty, we should proceed with caution. In many cases, that's going to be opening in distance learning," Thurmond said in a weekly media briefing held online.
However, there is no one-size-fits-all template for reopening schools, and classroom learning can still happen in counties or districts where it can be done safely, he said.
Last month, the California Department of Education released 62 pages of guidelines for districts on how to safely reopen. The guide laid out recommendations for taking temperature upon entering buses and schools, spacing out desks, cutting class sizes and rigorous cleaning of campuses and hand sanitizing for students and staff. But that was before California's case count exploded.
LAUSD superintendent says school year won't start with students at facilities amid COVID-19 pandemic
"Since we've issued our guidance, conditions have changed dramatically," said Thurmond. "We know that in many communities throughout our state we're seeing high rates of infection in the community."
The Los Angeles and San Diego school districts, the two largest in California with a combined K-12 student population of about 720,000, announced Monday their school years will begin next month with distance learning because of rising coronavirus hospitalizations and infection rates.
"We applaud the superintendents and school boards in Los Angeles and San Diego for making the decision to say, 'Lets open 'safely,' " Thurmond said.
L.A. and San Diego are the latest in a growing number of California school districts choosing to start the new term with digital learning amid strong concerns from teachers unions about the safety of staff on school campuses.
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Oakland, Long Beach and San Bernardino districts are among those that already have have said they will start off with distance learning. Some districts are considering a mix of distance learning and classroom instruction with few students in the room.
Thurmond acknowledged the safest way forward for much of the state is to keep classrooms closed for now, and pivot to some in-person instruction if and when coronavirus conditions improve.
"As we've always said, safety is paramount," said Thurmond. "If it's not safe to do so, schools shouldn't reopen in a way that would put students or staff in harm's way."
KGO-TV and the Associated Press contributed to this report.