Courtesy of the Waldorf School of Mendocino County
Students attend an outdoor class at the Waldorf School of Mendocino County on Aug. 18, 2020.
This story was updated at 6 p.m. Aug. 21 to include a statement from the California Department of Public Health.

Some small schools in Northern California, which had already opened for in-person instruction, were plunged into confusion this week when their county was placed on the state’s Covid-19 monitoring list.

One tiny campus, the Whale Gulch School on California’s “Lost Coast” in Mendocino County, had to go suddenly from in-person instruction to distance learning, much to the shock of local school officials who thought that state regulations would allow them to stay open for on-campus learning, although with added requirements to test staff for the virus more often.

Courtesy of Whale Gulch School

Whale Gulch School, in Leggett Valley Unified, opened for in-person instruction Aug. 17, 2020 and had to move to distance learning two days later.

The campus, which includes 53 K-12 students in an elementary and high school, is part of the Leggett Valley Unified School District. It relies solely on solar and battery power, and opened for in-person hybrid and distance learning instruction Monday, then had to abruptly send everyone home and move solely to distance learning Wednesday afternoon.

Over the past week, five rural counties in Northern and Eastern California have been added to the monitoring list — Amador, Mendocino, Calaveras, Sierra and Inyo.

County superintendents interviewed by EdSource in all but Sierra County said that being added to the list would not affect most districts in their jurisdictions because they had already decided to offer classes via online instruction. 

Meanwhile, San Diego, Santa Cruz and Placer counties were removed from the monitoring list. Schools in those counties can resume in-person instruction once the counties remain off of the list for a consecutive 14 days.

The state’s monitoring list includes 40 counties encompassing 745 districts and 1,060 charter schools with a combined public school enrollment of about 5.3 million students or 87.7% of students in the state, not including those attending private schools.

Under the state guidance, all schools in counties on the state’s monitoring list can only offer virtual instruction unless they had reopened before the county was added to the list.

The only exceptions to learning remotely in those districts might be in those that requested a waiver to serve some elementary school students in grades K-6, as well as some special education students and others with “acute needs.”

Mendocino County Schools Superintendent Michelle Hutchins said state officials told her that under state regulations, if a school opened for in-person instruction, and the state subsequently added their county to the monitoring list, the school would be allowed to continue with in-person instruction but with increased testing for Covid-19. Hutchins said she passed that information on to school administrators on Tuesday after consulting with legal counsel and the state Department of Education.

But after back-and-forth communications about when the county met the thresholds to be added to the list, Hutchins was told on Wednesday that the California Department of Public Health had reversed its previous decision and retroactively added the county to the list as of July 25, before the list was frozen in part due to data glitches that did not accurately reflect county case data.

“We’re still waiting for that official notification,” Hutchins said Wednesday afternoon, explaining that she heard the news from a county supervisor. “We’ve been doing 360-degree turns all summer long.”

The state Department of Public Health, in a statement, said on Friday that it had offered Mendocino County elementary schools three extra days to remain open, so they could apply for a waiver to continue in-person instruction. But Hutchins said she didn’t receive this information until Friday, after the students had been sent home. She anticipated most public schools in the county would not seek waivers, but said private and charter schools may.

The sudden about-face frustrated the Leggett Valley Unified and Laytonville Unified public school districts, two charter schools and four private schools that had already opened for in-person instruction or planned to shortly, she said. Some, including the Waldorf School of Mendocino County, a private school, had been holding some classes outdoors to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infections.

Courtesy of the Waldorf School of Mendocino County

Students at the Waldorf School of Mendocino County attend class outdoors on Aug. 18, 2020.

Rick Nelson, principal of the Ukiah Junior Academy Christian school, which opened last week, called the state’s about-face a “fiasco.”

“That was a shock,” he said, referring to being told Wednesday that the state belatedly added the Mendocino County to the list retroactively. “I’m sure we’re not the only school that had to put the brakes on. We’re frustrated, but we are not blaming anybody in our county. Our county has been very helpful.”

Nelson said he plans to seek a waiver to be able to teach approximately 70 K-6 students in his K-10 school in person.  

Most schools in other rural counties added to the monitoring list Monday were not adversely affected, county superintendents said, since a majority of schools had already decided to open via distance learning. Amador County Superintendent Steve Russell said no changes were anticipated.

Calaveras County school superintendent Scott Nanik said all districts were planning to open in distance learning “except for our small programs for at-risk students,” which he said were up and running before the state’s updated monitoring list was announced. Those, he said, would “remain in-person at this time.”

Nanik said the only private school in the area, Christian Family Learning Center, plans to open in-person after Labor Day, “so they have time to watch the numbers before changing plans.”

Counties are placed on the state’s monitoring list based on numerous factors, including positivity rates, hospitalizations, intensive care unit admissions and the number of available ventilators.

Inyo County Superintendent Barry Simpson said most districts had been planning in-person instruction, but began re-evaluating their plans after a local senior center recorded “a significant increase in cases.” Based on that, the county public health director recommended that local districts start the school year in distance learning even before the county was added to the list, Simpson said. The districts agreed.

San Diego County and Santa Cruz County, which were both removed from the list this week, and serve far more students than the small rural districts added to the list, are now waiting to see if they will remain off the list for 14 consecutive days, so schools could begin in-person instruction if they chose to do so.

“We hope that our community is willing to take the measures they need to do social distancing, wear face coverings and stay home when they can,” said Music Watson, spokeswoman for the San Diego County Office of Education. “At the end of 14 days, that means schools will be allowed to reopen. But we don’t anticipate that right away all schools will reopen.”

She noted that offering in-person instruction is far more complex for larger school districts than for private schools serving fewer students.

One hurdle is that most of the 42 school districts in San Diego County have yet to reach agreements with unions about how to deliver in-person instruction. That is not an issue in private or charter schools whose staff are not unionized.  

Making the facilities improvements that allow for physical distancing may also present challenges, Watson said. “We know there are members of school staff who feel really uncomfortable or scared about the prospect of returning to the classroom,” she said. “So, school districts and labor associations have to find a way to compromise to make sure they’re keeping their staff safe, while doing their fundamental duty to educate children.”

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