Granting waiver to allow L.A. County elementary schools to reopen will depend on region’s coronavirus data: Ferrer

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Though California schools in counties on the state’s coronavirus watchlist won’t be allowed to reopen for in-person instruction in the fall, the state has allowed elementary schools to apply for waivers to open campuses.

District superintendents, school boards or school directors can request a waiver from their county health departments to reopen elementary schools, but parents, labor organizations and community-based partners must be on board, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

In L.A. County — one of 34 counties on the monitoring list for heightened coronavirus activity — school officials interested in waivers are expected to be allowed to begin applying sometime “by the end of this week or early next week,” county Health Director Barbara Ferrer said at a Wednesday news conference.

“Once the waiver’s requested, our department will consult with the California Department of Public Health to assess the request and review regional epidemiological data regarding trends in cases and deaths and the capacity within the regional hospital system,” Ferrer said

If campuses are allowed to reopen, schools must follow the state’s guidance for limiting the spread of the coronavirus: all school staff and students in third grade and above must wear masks, younger children should be encouraged to wear face shields, and everyone has to maintain physical distance of at least 6 feet apart and undergo temperature checks.

Staff will be tested for the coronavirus on a rotating basis and schools will have to sanitize campuses.

“We’ll be working with our school districts to ensure that when schools are reopened, they’ll be able to adhere to existing directives in our health officer orders on distancing, infection control and managing outbreaks in the school setting,” Ferrer said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the county’s largest district, had already announced that students will not be returning to classes for in-person learning next semester before the governor issued his mandate on closing schools. But there were dozens of other smaller districts that had yet to announce whether children would be back in classrooms.

Some districts, like the Torrance Unified School District, were having families choose between blended or distance learning options.

The county health department has yet to specify exactly which metrics officials will be looking at and what the data should look like for a waiver to be granted.

“The process will be well defined and transparent,” Ferrer said. “And we’re going to work closely with the state to make decisions in a timely manner.

With the waivers applying to students in kindergarten through sixth grade, schools that do get approval will be alleviating child care and at-home teaching pressure from working parents, especially with uneven access to technology and internet access among Black and Latino families.

But it’s unclear where teachers stand on the waivers.

Leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles had agreed with the decision to keep L.A. campuses closed and for distance learning to continue when the school year begins in August, finding that it is not safe to bring children back on campus.

“We’re going to do our best to use the available data and then and the science to ensure that the health and wellbeing— both physical and emotional— of all children, teachers, school staff, and all of their families remains the top priority,” Ferrer said.

L.A. County has been seeing a spike in coronavirus infections, especially among younger residents, and its COVID-19 hospitalization rates have hit an all-time high.

The total number of confirmed coronavirus infections climbed to 164,870 Wednesday, with 4,213 deaths reported countywide.

“I hope that this week marks a turning point, and that are considerate kind behaviors and the actions we’ve taken in the past two weeks are going to translate into healthier, a healthier community that can resume its recovery journey,” Ferrer said.

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