Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday announced only schools in counties off the state’s coronavirus watchlist for two weeks straight will be allowed to reopen for in-person instruction, making it unlikely the majority of schools will open their doors.
“If you are not on that monitoring list, you can move forward as a county,” Newsom said. “However, schools that don’t meet this requirement, they must begin the school year this fall through distance learning.”
At least 31 of California’s 58 counties, including most in Southern California, are being monitored by state officials for heightened coronavirus activity — those counties have received stricter, more sweeping restrictions from the governor.
“Learning remains not negotiable. But neither is the safety of all of our cohorts, of support staff, as well as our children,” Newsom said.
District superintendents can request a waiver from state and county health officials to reopen elementary schools for in-person instruction, but parents and labor organizations must be on board, according to the governor’s office.
In campuses that do reopen, all school staff and students in third grade and above must wear masks, while the younger children are encouraged to wear face shields, Newsom said.
Everyone at the schools will have to maintain at least 6 feet of distance from others and start their day with temperature checks, according to the state’s guidelines. Schools will have to keep up with campus sanitization, have quarantine protocols and work with contact tracers to curb the spread of the virus.
The governor said school staff will have to be tested for the coronavirus on a rotating basis.
But being given the green light to reopen does not mean schools can’t close again.
Schools that have a confirmed coronavirus case need to quarantine those exposed for 14 days, and revert to online learning if several people, or 5% of students and staff, test positive in a two-week period, officials said.
The whole district would have to revert to distance learning if at least 25% of its schools end up closing because of outbreaks in a 14-day period.
Counties currently on the monitoring list still have weeks to go before the fall term is slated to begin and may be able to mitigate the spread of the virus and end up reopening schools, Newsom said, urging residents to wear masks and adhere to public safety guidelines.
Several school districts have already announced students will begin the school year with online learning, including the Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento and Oakland school districts.
The Torrance Unified School District was having families choose between blended or distance learning options.
In Orange County, where the department of education recommended working to resume in-person instruction with remote instruction, the Santa Ana Unified School District and two Anaheim districts opted to continue with online learning when the school year begins, while the Irvine Unified School District gave parents four days to pick between three learning models, including hybrid options.
But as the fall semester looms, many of the state’s 1,037 school districts, serving 6 million students, had yet to announce whether they will be opening their doors to students.
State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond said teachers have been receiving training during the summer break, learning how to balance Zoom classes and meetings with small groups of students in “breakout rooms,” including children that need one-on-one attention.
“We’re in a much better position going into the school year — in every county and district— to support the needs for children than we were back in the spring,” Darling-Hammond said, explaining many districts have since secured devices and internet access for students.
Newsom acknowledged learning disparities among students statewide and uneven access to technology. He told schools that open that they must provide devices to every child and have daily live interactions set up between teachers and students.
Earlier this week, California’s education chief, Superintendent Tony Thurmond, applauded the state’s two largest school districts, L.A. and San Diego, for their decision not to reopen classrooms as the state sees a surge in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations.
And in line with Newsom’s Friday order, Thurmond said that in counties where the number of cases is low, schools could reopen for in-person classes as long as they follow the state’s guidance on physical distancing and wearing face coverings.
“We believe that those schools can open safely,” he said, but called for “an abundance of caution.”
The California Department of Education did release guidance for schools back in June, and the rules included required masks, physical distancing, regular hand washing and temperature checks. The page has since been updated to include the requirements announced Friday.
“Since we’ve issued our guidance, conditions have changed dramatically,” Thurmond said. “In many communities throughout our state, we’re seeing high rates of infection in the community. This surge has spelled the need for caution.”
Amid skyrocketing COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, California has confirmed a total of 365,125 cases and 7,491 deaths attributed to the respiratory illness, according to an L.A. Times tally.
“The one thing we have the power to do to get our kids back into school is wear a mask, physically distance, wash your hands, minimize the mixing,” Newsom said. “Model the behavior that we know can mitigate the spread, model the behavior that can actually extinguish this virus.”