Photo: Andrew Reed/EdSource
A UC Berkeley employee uses disinfectant to clean doors to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the student union.

As the coronavirus spreads in California, county school superintendents expressed concerns to Gov. Gavin Newsom about the impact of possible school closures on low-income students, especially those who depend on school meals.  They also raised the issue of families who may face challenges finding care for their children if schools are closed.

To better understand local concerns, Newsom on Monday gathered in his office State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and many of the county superintendents of schools representing the state’s 58 counties who voiced concerns about next steps in dealing withe the spreading virus.

“We’re doing a bottom-up process, not a top-down process,” Newsom told reporters on Tuesday, noting that school boards will also help make decisions related to closures. “Each county is different.”

Newsom highlighted the guidance for K-12 schools and colleges to deal with the virus that the state sent out to schools on Saturday. Newsom also stressed that the state will not order California’s 6 million students to stay home and will not tell counties or districts when local schools should close. Instead, he said the state is relying on districts to consult with their county public health agencies to determine what is best for their students and communities.

He said Santa Clara County appears to be furthest along in terms of requiring social distancing, noting that health officials there have implemented a ban on all large gatherings of more than 1,000 people. Statewide, he said 60 percent of students receive free or reduced priced meals, but in some counties it is much higher. In Merced, 80 percent of students receive free or reduced price school meals, so the state is trying to plan for different scenarios in case school closures are required.

Shortly after Newsom’s press conference, the California Department of Education announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a special CA COVID19 waiver through June 30 that will allow any school district previously approved to distribute meals through the Summer Food Service Program or Seamless Summer Option to provide meals to students during a school closure related to the virus.

“When a school or district closes, our first concern is the safety and care of our students,” Thurmond said. “Our nutrition services division was proactive in reaching out to the USDA to request the necessary approval in anticipation of local educational agencies potentially having to close due to the coronavirus. That advanced planning, combined with the rapid response from the USDA, will allow districts to continue to provide their most vulnerable students with nutritious meals in the event of a closure.”

The waiver will allow schools to serve meals at both school or non-school sites and to offer options that do not require students to eat on site and can instead be taken to another location to eat, which is a departure from usual federal guidelines. This will enable students to be fed without increasing the risk of spreading germs, according to the state. Alternative sites discussed for meal distribution included libraries and parks.

He said Los Angeles County superintendent Debra Duardo expressed concerns about how districts could distribute school meals, as well as how school closures would affect low-income students and those who are undocumented. “Immigrant overlays were a big part of the conversation we were having with Los Angeles,” Newsom said.

The capacity of schools to provide online learning or independent study was also discussed. Some school leaders told the governor they were worried that many teachers are not trained in independent study or online learning.

“I know districts are looking at options,” said Kindra Britt, spokeswoman for the California Department of Education, adding that the state is concerned about equity and students’ access to wi-fi and computers.

Orange County Superintendent Al Mijares told EdSource current laws regarding independent study are very restrictive and require parents to ask permission for their students to participate.

“The supes were asking for an executive order to free that up,” he said, adding that they also requested some sort of executive order “to provide more independence to do what we felt was important to assure the safety of students,” including more liberty related to instructional minutes required. The state requires varied numbers of minutes of instruction for students based on grade spans and types of schools and penalizes schools that don’t meet the requirements. Mijares did not elaborate on what kind of flexibility the superintendents were seeking.

“He agreed with us on many points,” Mijares said, adding that he sensed that Newsom and his team “had to go back and think it through.”

Britt, spokeswoman for the California Department of Education, said the California Department of Public Health is the lead agency working with districts to help them determine if school closures are necessary. She said the state Department of Education wants districts to do what’s in the best interests of their students and staff and that funding questions can be worked out later.

District officials asked the governor to provide a waiver so that they would continue to get funding if they close their schools since funding is now based on attendance. “A lot of issues involved funding,” Britt said, adding that the state’s Department of Education looks forward to working with the legislature to work out these complex challenges.

Although districts can apply for waivers to receive funding if schools close for emergencies such as fires or power outages, Britt said no hard and fast rules have yet been established regarding closures related to coronavirus. “We’re trying to take it case by case,” she said.

Britt also pointed out that schools need to consult pesticide regulations regarding the disinfectants and sanitizing products to ensure they are using them correctly.

Regarding school testing. Britt said county superintendents were told that districts do not have the authority to suspend federally mandated student testing.

Michelle Smith McDonald, spokeswoman for the Alameda County Office of Education, said her agency has been receiving a lot of questions from local districts about whether to cancel field trips and assemblies. She said new guidance from the county’s health department expected soon would help to clarify how those decisions should be made. The guidance released late Tuesday advised schools to consider alternatives to group programming within a school “including large or communal activities such as assemblies.” Instead, the county suggested “conducting assemblies via webcasts or intercom announcements.”

Contra Costa County issued new guidance Tuesday recommending the cancellation of large community events where 50 or more people are within arm’s length of each other, as well as large, in-person meetings and conferences. It said all schools and classrooms should be equipped with hand sanitizers and tissues and that schools should “explore distance learning and online options to continue learning,” and “make backup plans for childcare given the potential for school dismissals.”

Staff writer Louis Freedberg contributed to this report.

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  1. Marco 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Although closing the schools makes sense, there isn't much of a plan beyond that. I now see very young children hanging out in groups all day around the neighborhood. Had to scold one of these unsupervised kids today who was breaking small branches off a park tree. My guess is they are from families who still have to go to work and can't afford child care, So they are left to wander and do … Read More

    Although closing the schools makes sense, there isn’t much of a plan beyond that. I now see very young children hanging out in groups all day around the neighborhood. Had to scold one of these unsupervised kids today who was breaking small branches off a park tree. My guess is they are from families who still have to go to work and can’t afford child care, So they are left to wander and do whatever they please. I hope they don’t come in contact with the virus while being out there messing around all day on their own.

  2. Marie Henley 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    What happens to teachers and additional staff whose school is closed but are still required to come, if they are over 60 and have compromised health issues?

  3. Jean Seal 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Close the schools. It should not even be a question. Clear the red tape.

  4. School teacher 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Enough already - lives are more important. The sooner you close, the safer we all are. You are putting the kids, their families and your staff at risk. It’s sad to see California still arguing and loosing valuable time to get ahead of this. We need to be the leaders in showing we care for the lives of our communities and lead the rest of the states to do the same - not be behind … Read More

    Enough already – lives are more important. The sooner you close, the safer we all are. You are putting the kids, their families and your staff at risk. It’s sad to see California still arguing and loosing valuable time to get ahead of this. We need to be the leaders in showing we care for the lives of our communities and lead the rest of the states to do the same – not be behind this and face the biggest loss because instead of being proactive we are now reactive and worse off – Close the schools already!

  5. Judith Klinger 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Helpful article; a lot of people want to close schools without knowing the funding issues. I’ll forward them this now.

  6. John 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    I am not an expert so I will not comment on whether public schools should be shut down. But is it not ridiculous to think that the State of California is tied up in knots over regulations such as whether school districts get paid if a school district closes down, and whether students who need meals will get meals if schools close down. The Governor should have the gumption to clear the red … Read More

    I am not an expert so I will not comment on whether public schools should be shut down. But is it not ridiculous to think that the State of California is tied up in knots over regulations such as whether school districts get paid if a school district closes down, and whether students who need meals will get meals if schools close down.

    The Governor should have the gumption to clear the red tape and make this an expedient issue of the publics welfare, not an issue of budgets and administrative procedures/debates. I understand, nobody has a magic wand, and administrative issues/budgets do have to be discussed at some level so people know how to operate/what to expect. But for god’s sake please don’t slow down or get wrapped around the axle on budgets and lunches. That can be worked out by executive management. That is what leadership is all about, clearing pathways for effective response.

    My suggestion: The State/Governor should assure the districts they will get their full budgets, but ask the districts that in such extenuating circumstances, that the counties/districts have the responsibility for making sure each student gets the opportunity, delayed or not, to receive a full year’s education this year, within a reasonable timeline. So just in case the experts decide closing schools is important, I hope the school boards can be encouraged funding will be assured, that allow for the best possible solutions district by district, given a reasonable set of assumptions that they can plan for/count on ( e.g., budgets assured).

    Encourage some flexibility and suggest that districts could mix strategies (some distance learning where it is possible, some delayed class opportunities, some makeup, etc.). Certainly the regulating agencies will grant exceptions to the usual rules for such exceptional circumstances. And just pay for the lunches of any students depending upon the meals even if schools are closed, rather than making an issue of it. It is already budgeted and those families were counting on it.

  7. Kristine 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    They are more concerned about losing money and using these students as an excuse. They can help those families with deliveries and grocery vouchers if they truly cared.

  8. Aaron 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    My problem here is that the decision is not based on health and safety for the population. It is around free child care and meals for some. Health and safety for the population should be the primary concern.

  9. Karen Helms 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    The section of this article that struck me was the fact that my county provides free or low cost meals to its students, and the problems associated with distributing the meals if the schools are closed. Hunger is a very real issue in my community. I'm sure all sorts of ideas have been tossed around, but could you use the school bus drivers to distribute meals - or use a meals on wheels sort of … Read More

    The section of this article that struck me was the fact that my county provides free or low cost meals to its students, and the problems associated with distributing the meals if the schools are closed. Hunger is a very real issue in my community. I’m sure all sorts of ideas have been tossed around, but could you use the school bus drivers to distribute meals – or use a meals on wheels sort of set up to get the meals out to these students.

  10. William Hyres 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    That is just stupid. We are in a pandemic, so we need to do everything to stop the pandemic and save lives of people. School kids going to school so their parents work, frankly, is not more important than the lives of all the people facing death by suffocation, pneumonia, from this virus.

  11. Angel 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    How do any of these considerations keep the kids and their extended families safe if they don’t fall under any of the categories of undocumented, meal receiving, low income or lack of Wi Fi access? How do these considerations keep this disease from getting even more out of control? I think there should be allowed a choice as to what decisions are made regarding their family’s health.

  12. Teacher 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Please please please follow the huge numbers of closures and close the schools already! It is scary to be at school. Adults can control their habits and do more to try to make an effort to only touch their own things, and they are being told to work from home. NBA canceled because of a player. South San Francisco Unified had a student in middle school test positive and the school was cleaned for … Read More

    Please please please follow the huge numbers of closures and close the schools already! It is scary to be at school. Adults can control their habits and do more to try to make an effort to only touch their own things, and they are being told to work from home. NBA canceled because of a player. South San Francisco Unified had a student in middle school test positive and the school was cleaned for a day over the weekend. How has that done enough? Kids share books, touch lockers, doors, lunch cards, computers, hand rails, the bathroom, 100-300 other students use. Then they play sports and go home to families. Then those younger siblings who don’t cover their mouth, pick boogers, share pencils/sharpeners…

    Kids will get fed- thousands of sick kids is not what we want! A kid who tested positive on Friday had a lot of time to pass it on. Were other students tested? Let’s get ahead of this!! As a teacher with a family I’m thinking of staying home; what sub wants that job?

  13. Bo Loney 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    I think the Governor needs to really look long and hard at Italy and others right now when making this decision. It’s not like we don’t know how bad this can escalate.

  14. Karen Arthur 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Italy had 132 cases on 2/23, 1,577 on 3/1, 5,900 on 3/8, and 12,462 today. They've had almost 200 deaths w/in 24 hours. We are two weeks behind Italy. We have tested under 1,000 and South Korea has tested 200,000. We were notified the same day South Korea was notified! Gov. Newsom picked a fine time to go w/a "bottom-up process, not a top-down process" . . . Keeping people alive should be priority #1. … Read More

    Italy had 132 cases on 2/23, 1,577 on 3/1, 5,900 on 3/8, and 12,462 today. They’ve had almost 200 deaths w/in 24 hours. We are two weeks behind Italy. We have tested under 1,000 and South Korea has tested 200,000. We were notified the same day South Korea was notified! Gov. Newsom picked a fine time to go w/a “bottom-up process, not a top-down process” . . .

    Keeping people alive should be priority #1. Many students live with elderly family members or others w/underlying conditions and compromised immune systems. The concerns that superintendents have can be addressed, but we can also use good common sense.

    Replies

    • J 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

      That is because with a bottom-up approach, the liability will rest solely with the individual school districts. It’s an attempt to mitigate the potential lawsuits.

    • tom 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

      Karen - I'm not as concerned and here is why. Edsource is reporting today 3/12 that only 177 cases in California, 3 deaths, and those are older people or have other health problems in at least the one case of the guy from the cruise ship who was in his 70s. It's well-known that Italy has an older population which should result in more sickness and deaths from this. Rate of … Read More

      Karen – I’m not as concerned and here is why. Edsource is reporting today 3/12 that only 177 cases in California, 3 deaths, and those are older people or have other health problems in at least the one case of the guy from the cruise ship who was in his 70s. It’s well-known that Italy has an older population which should result in more sickness and deaths from this. Rate of new infections in China is declining, not increasing.

      We are finding out that younger people (like parents) and kids either don’t get it as readily or have mild symptoms, e.g. Mr. and Mrs. Tom Hanks, a UC Berkeley journalism student as well and there must be many others. The rapid school closures, banning parents from campuses, cancelling of kids sports, etc. seems like a panicky, knee-jerk reaction. It’s not the black plague.

      • Donna 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

        We have no idea how many cases we have because we are barely testing. We can’t even guess where we are on the pandemic curve because we lack testing kits. Close the schools already.

  15. tom 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Am glad to see that districts are asking the Governor for a waiver on the absence penalty if and when schools close in addition to “free” food. Teachers will continue to get paid and that is 90% of costs. State tax revenues are flush with cash so sure hope this governor makes the right decision!