Los Angeles County’s health director Barbara Ferrer on Wednesday said the health department will be moving ahead with issuing the protocols for reopening school campuses, but they wouldn’t be opening their doors to students unless they’re sure they can avoid an “explosion of outbreaks.”
The health department’s best practices guidelines will serve as “a planning document for schools to use as they’re putting in place their own individualized plans for reopening with as much safety as possible,” Ferrer said in a news conference.
“Those should go out, I’m hoping, by the end of this week or early next week,” she said.
But it still remains unclear when schools will be allowed to welcome back students as L.A. County grapples with a surge in coronavirus infections and increased hospitalizations for the respiratory illness.
“We would never open any other sectors without looking at our data,” Ferrer said. “That’s always been what’s driven our reopening practices here, is making sure we’re paying a lot of attention to what’s going on.”
L.A. County recorded 2,496 new coronavirus cases and another 65 deaths Wednesday, bringing the countywide total to 123,004 cases with 3,642 deaths. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 are at an “all time high” and the county is seeing an increased coronavirus transmission rate similar to that seen back in April, according to Ferrer.
“You absolutely would not want to open a sector when you thought that the result of the reopening could be an explosion of outbreaks within that sector, so we’re going to continue to be mindful of what our data is telling us,” Ferrer said.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Ferrer had an “off the record” Tuesday phone call with district superintendents and others, in which she told them to have plans in place to continue distance learning for “100% of the time.”
In response to questions about the report in Wednesday’s news conference, Ferrer said it was always the plan to prepare for all scenarios based on where the county stood in the pandemic.
“With the uncertainty that we face right now in our county, everyone needs to have sort of a plan B around the reopening and the plan B has always been a plan,” Ferrer said. “If there was way too much community transmission, it may in fact mean that there has to be a longer period of time for there to be more virtual learning as opposed to more on campus learning.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday said the decision on reopening California’s schools will be made by local officials with understanding of the pandemic in their jurisdictions, and not by statements from President Donald Trump, who threatened to hold back federal funds if school districts don’t bring their students back in the fall.
Ferrer said the county’s guidance will mirror the protocols issued by the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“They’re just some best practices to opening a school environments with as much safety as possible, and we’ve been working hard to really collect all of that and be able to summarize it in what we hope is a useful planning tool for school districts to use,” the health director said.
Officials have long said schools will look very different when students do return, and many districts have been working to decide on whether to use a hybrid of in-person and online learning.
In May, the Los Angeles County Office of Education offered recommendations that districts can use as a reference when they get the green light to reopen. They include reduced class sizes, required face masks, hand washing schedules and students attending school in shifts.
Ferrer said the health department has been working with local school districts and the governor’s office in shaping the guidelines.
For Los Angeles Unified School District students, the next school year is set to begin August 18 — about five months from the time students were last in classrooms.
“No decision has been made about a return to school facilities but it’s reasonable to assume instruction will include an online component for most students,” District Superintendent Austin Beutner in his Monday weekly update.
Beutner has repeatedly stressed that reopening schools will be complicated, and not as simple as asking every one to wear masks and moving desks apart.
“COVID-19 continues to be a real threat to all in the communities we serve and it does not look like that will change anytime soon,” he said. “We have to do the best we can to adapt to the challenges it presents.”
With many of the district’s students not having electronic devices or reliable internet access to continue their remote learning from home when schools closed in March, the transition online was rocky.
“We know the importance of daily, live instruction yet about 1/3 of teachers were not able to provide this owing to a variety of factors,” Beutner said.
The superintendent said schools will continue to make sure every student has a device and internet access next school year, and work is underway “to tie together in-person and online instruction.”