California health officials list conditions for an elementary school waiver

August 4, 2020

Sean Brandlin, 8th grade social studies at El Segundo Middle School after his school closed last spring.

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The California Department of Public Health issued information Monday on what it would take for elementary schools to open for in-person instruction in counties where schools otherwise would be closed because of high rates of the coronavirus infection.

The new requirements are extensive, and the sample application form is lengthy. County public health directors will have latitude to phase in schools’ plans and limit the number of schools that can open in their counties.

The state document also recommends, with a passage in bold print, that county health departments prohibit any exceptions in counties where the numbers of coronavirus infections are more than 200 cases per 100,000 population over a 14-day period. That’s twice the rate of the current threshold that puts counties on the school closure list and would rule out elementary school waivers for 14 of the 38 counties currently on the state’s monitoring list. They include hot spots Kern (429 cases per 100,000) and Los Angeles (338 cases per 100,000) counties, along with Riverside, San Bernardino, San Joaquin and Santa Barbara counties. Fresno County is close to the threshold.

At a press conference Tuesday with Gov. Gavin Newsom, Dr. Erica Pan, the state’s epidemiologist, went further than the report. Pan said flatly that schools in counties where cases are above the 200 threshold would not be eligible for waivers.

Also on Monday, state health officials published guidance that will permit some youth sports to resume. School-based and club sports will be permitted if 6 feet between individuals can be maintained with a stable cohort of participants, such as a class of students. Sports and other outdoor activities that require close contact are not allowed. Events that promote congregating — such as tournaments — are also not permitted. The guidance comes after the California Interscholastic Federation announced last month that fall high school sports would be postponed until 2021.

The possibility of obtaining an elementary school waiver from countywide school closures appeared as a one-paragraph footnote on the first page of a five-page guidance that the state issued July 17. The document detailed the process for re-opening schools in counties that have been placed on a minimum 14-day monitoring list because of criteria measuring the spread of the coronavirus.

There was immediate interest from small private schools, dependent on tuition. Traditional school districts in rural counties and districts interested in sending to school small groups of children who have struggled with distance learning — foster children, English learners and students with disabilities — could be candidates as well.

“There is widespread interest; most private schools resume campus-based instruction at the earliest date conditions are deemed safe to do so,” said Ron Reynolds, executive director of the California Association of Private School Organizations.

Reynolds characterized the safety protocols for the waiver as “appropriate, rigorous, comprehensive and thoughtful — in line with what I had expected.”

“Erring on the side of caution is warranted, but with a path forward if conditions are met,” he said, adding, “Some schools will find (the conditions) harder to accept than others; private schools encompass a wide range of views.”

In a statement Tuesday, E. Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Association, made his view clear: CTA opposes granting any waivers for reopening.

“We have said all along, California cannot reopen schools unless it is safe. That applies to all schools on county watch lists or not, and to school districts seeking waivers from adhering to California Department of Public Health guidance,” he said in a statement.

Boyd disputed the evidence that young children are less likely to infect others. “Now, with the cases of children who have been infected with Covid-19 in childcare right here in California, in Texas, as well as the students in Georgia, we can NO LONGER SAY, kids aren’t transmitters,” he said. And he warned that granting waivers to schools with the resources to open safely “would exacerbate the racial and economic inequities that exists in our schools and communities.”

The guidance lists conditions that must be met in applying for a waiver. They include:

In Santa Clara County, where the county superintendent of public schools and the director of public health sent out a letter inviting public and private school officials to apply for the waiver, the Diocese of San Jose plans to apply on behalf of all Catholic schools in the region, and the Khan Lab School, an in-person small private school, is pursuing a waiver to teach children outside in tents, founder Sal Khan told EdSource last week.

San Jose Unified, the county’s largest district, and Palo Alto Unified have no immediate plans to pursue a waiver, administrators said.

Napa County Superintendent of Schools Barbara Nemko, said Tuesday that 11 private schools in that county indicated they would apply for a waiver. However, the county public health department notified them that no waivers would be considered until later in August or September because of fast-increasing incidents of coronavirus, she said. No public schools have indicated an interest in a waiver, she said.

The Mercury News reported Wednesday that Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties would not consider waiver applications until data on the pandemic decline.

Also during the press conference Tuesday, Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s Health and Human Services secretary, said that California has learned from other states about transmission of the virus, especially among young children. He said some outbreaks in other states have occurred after children participated in indoor activities such as singing and chanting without face coverings, which has led California to recommend moving some activities outdoors or avoiding them altogether.

In addition, he said California has learned that it is best to keep as much distance as possible between students, to minimize mixing among groups, and ideally to keep groups very small at four to eight people.

EdSource reporter Theresa Harrington contributed to updating this article. 

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