L.A. County won’t consider waivers to reopen elementary schools for in-person classes due to high COVID-19 rates

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Instructor Amy Giang teaches a class of 4th-7th graders, wearing masks and spaced apart as per coronavirus guidelines, during summer school sessions at Happy Day School in Monterey Park, on July 9, 2020. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Instructor Amy Giang teaches a class of 4th-7th graders, wearing masks and spaced apart as per coronavirus guidelines, during summer school sessions at Happy Day School in Monterey Park, on July 9, 2020. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Los Angeles County’s health department announced Tuesday it will not be accepting any applications for waivers to reopen elementary schools, saying the coronavirus case rate is too high.

While schools in counties on the state’s coronavirus watchlist for heightened coronavirus activity are not allowed to reopen for in-person instruction, the state was allowing elementary schools in those counties to request a waiver from their local health department to reopen to students in grades TK- 6. The counties include L.A., Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino and Riverside.

But on Monday, California’s health agency said it recommends that schools within jurisdictions with 14-day coronavirus case rates at or above 200 per 100,000 people should not be considered for a waiver to reopen in-person instruction.

L.A. County’s case rate is at 355 per 100,000 people, putting it way above the state’s threshold, according to a L.A. County Department of Public Health news release.

“We know that to many families, this is a disappointing announcement, but it’s based on the existing science and data that is guiding all of our decision-making,” the department said in the news release. “We need to ensure the health and safety of our children, school teachers and staff and all of their families.”

The department said the decision will be reconsidered when the coronavirus case rate falls.

Nearby Orange County’s two-week coronavirus case rate per 100,000 residents is at 149.5, according to California Department of Public Health. But the number could be off because the state’s electronic lab system experienced technical issues that may have resulted in an undercount in coronavirus cases.

O.C.’s acting health officer, Dr. Clayton Chau, said in a letter Tuesday that the county is accepting waiver applications to open elementary schools, but added that the county will only initiate a consultation on the applications with the state’s health agency if the county’s case rate is really less than 200 cases per 100,000 population.

The O.C. Department of Education said it was told by the county health department that despite the state’s technical problems, schools can still prepare their submissions for consideration while the state’s data issue is being addressed.

Ventura County’s case rate is at 167.2 per 100,000, according to the state’s current data. It’s unclear whether its health department will consider waiver applications.

With current data from the state, San Bernardino County’s case rate per 100,000 is at 238.9 and Riverside County is 202. It’s unclear how those rates will change when the technical issue with the reporting system is fixed, but Riverside County officials told the Press-Enterprise that the county doesn’t plan to issue waivers until it knows its case rate.

San Bernardino County spokesman David Wert told the paper the county will tell the two school districts and the 24 private or charter schools that have asked for a waiver that the county currently does not meet the state’s recommended criteria for granting waivers.

According to strict guidelines for the waivers released by the state Monday, elementary schools interested in opening would have to consult with labor, parent and community organizations and adhere to very detailed infection control protocols.

The largest school district in Los Angeles County, The L.A. Unified School 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.

While all public and private schools across L.A. County are closed for in-person learning, teachers and staff are allowed to return to campuses, but they have to wear face masks and adhere to physical distancing and infection control protocols, officials said.

“The Department of Public Health will continue to work with all of our partners across the County to implement the infection control strategies we know effectively reduce community transmission and case rates so that schools can re-open for in-person instruction as soon as the data and science tell us it’s safe to do so,” the L.A.’s health department said.

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