Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo
Gov. Gavin Newsom

California school campuses in 32 of the counties hardest hit by Covid-19 aren’t likely to reopen at the beginning of the school year, announced Gov. Gavin Newsom in a press conference Friday.

The campuses that do reopen will have mask requirements for students and teachers, as well as Covid-19 testing and social distancing recommendations for teachers and school staff, according to California Department of Public Health guidelines Newsom released Friday.

Students in public and private schools located in counties on the state’s monitoring list because they have had an increase in coronavirus infections will begin the school year with distance learning. Schools in those counties will be required to meet strict criteria in order to reopen. 

If the 32 counties are still on the watch list when the school year begins, 5 million students in 685 school districts and 1,131 charter schools will be learning from home.

“Public education is absolutely about our kids, but we cannot deny the fact that we have hundreds of thousands of adults that are responsible for taking care of and educating our kids as well,” Newsom said. “And their health has to be considered as well.”

Children are much less likely to contract Covid-19 than adults, but older adults and those with underlying illness are at risk.

The California Teachers Association pushed back on the idea of reopening schools last week in a letter to the governor, legislators and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. The letter said the union was uneasy about returning to school in six to eight weeks with the recent surge of infections.

Friday CTA President E. Toby Boyd praised the new guidelines, saying they offer needed clarity and uniformity across the state, but added that the union still had concerns about some standards that will be used for closing schools.

A school would be closed when at least 5% of the student body and staff are diagnosed with Covid-19 within a 14-day period, according to the Department of Public Health guidance. It also states a superintendent should close a school district if a quarter of its schools have been closed due to Covid-19 cases within two weeks.

“There’s no one more eager to get back to school with their students than teachers,” Boyd wrote in a statement. “We miss and want to be with our students but are ready to engage with school districts to implement a robust distance learning program that is inclusive of all and equitable in resources and technology.”

The guidance says school districts can open their campuses when the county they are in is off the monitoring list for 14 consecutive days.

It also mandates masks for all staff and children in 3rd grade and above when indoors, on school buses and in areas where physical distancing isn’t sufficient to prevent disease transmission. Children between age 2 and second grade are “strongly encouraged” to wear masks.

There are exemptions for children who have trouble breathing or who are incapacitated. Students who refuse to wear a mask will be sent home and taught via distance learning.

The guidelines say that staff members can wear a face shield in the classroom in limited circumstances, including when they are teaching children with special needs. Teachers should be tested at least every two months on a rotating basis and should stay six feet away from each other and students.

The guidelines also offer specific guidance about the use of hand sanitizers and hand washing. They recommend that schools ensure adequate amounts of soap, tissues, no-touch trash cans, face coverings and hand sanitizer.

The mandates mark a shift from leaving decisions over closing and reopening schools largely in the hands of local school district officials in consultation with county departments of health. The California Department of Public Health will now play a stronger role in setting the criteria for reopening school facilities.

As of this week, many school districts, including the state’s largest district, with enrollments totaling more than 1.5 million students, had already decided to open with distance learning this fall because of concerns over the spike in coronavirus cases.

“We know that young people learn best in the classroom,” said Debra Duardo, Los Angeles County superintendent of schools. “However, the health and safety of students and school staff must come first. I applaud Governor Newsom for making this everyone’s top priority while recognizing that learning is also non-negotiable.”

Distance instruction “is not ideal” and “will not be easy,” Duardo said. “Far too many of our young people were already dealing with the negative effects of trauma, which have only been made worse by school closures and social distancing.”

Newsom talked about offering rigorous distance learning next school year, stressing that teachers are expected to have daily live interaction with students and students with their peers. Schools should create a challenging environment where online assignments are equivalent to in-class instruction, he said.

“The state needs to provide meaningful instruction in this pandemic,” Newsom said, adding “only if it can be done safely.”

Superintendent Thurmond said the guidance lays out metrics so district officials better understand the conditions that would determine whether schools close.

“I want to commend the governor for his leadership and for his focus on prioritizing public safety during what might be one of the most challenging experiences we will face in our lifetime,” Thurmond said. “I appreciate the concern he expressed today as a father, his concern for the safety of California’s 6 million students, and his concern for the health and welfare of our schools’ educators and families.”

“I also want to thank the governor for the work he has led to ensure that our educators have necessary personal protective equipment — already on its way to our 10,000 schools — in the form of millions of units of face coverings, face shields, hand sanitizer and thermometers,” he said.

On Monday the California Department of Education will host a meeting for officials from the state’s approximately 1,000 school districts to review the guidance. California Department of Public Health officials will present the guidance and take questions from educators across the state.

Will Swaim, president of the nonprofit libertarian California Policy Center, offered a dissenting view. Swaim moderated the 11-person panel in Orange County whose report, adopted by the Orange County Board of Education, called for opening school this fall without requiring masks or social distancing.

Newsom’s plan is “unscientific, unworkable and unconscionable,” he wrote in an email. Newsom “says he’ll lock out students in an entire county based on spiking case counts in just one part of that county — and without regard for the fact that the disease rarely strikes young people. This crazy-making policy will open schools for a day or two and close them again for two weeks, open and close them again in an endless and chaotic cycle.”

But Swaim also acknowledged it is “a tough time to be a governor. There are no perfect solutions, and any of us who offer anything know there’s a tradeoff.”

EdSource reporter John Fensterwald contributed to this report.

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  1. Joe 5 days ago5 days ago

    Let me get this straight. Before the Pandemic, for the last 3 years, school boards across this country have passed rules/laws against children that do not get vaccinated. Students cannot come to school for known virus/diseases that have a vaccine, that currently have very little threat to the public, yet we are in Red Alert Status in a Global Pandemic that is killing people all over the world with no cure, no vaccine, and were … Read More

    Let me get this straight. Before the Pandemic, for the last 3 years, school boards across this country have passed rules/laws against children that do not get vaccinated. Students cannot come to school for known virus/diseases that have a vaccine, that currently have very little threat to the public, yet we are in Red Alert Status in a Global Pandemic that is killing people all over the world with no cure, no vaccine, and were sending kids and teacher back into the same classroom with a airborne deadly virus, just to keep the economy open.

    Jeez that’s Satanic! Every school has basically closed back down this week. Why are we letting these people run our country? Has everyone just given up?

  2. Christopher Chiang 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Mr. Fensterwald, have you heard if schools in monitored counties can gather small groups of students on campus for orientation or limited social engagements, field trips outdoors even?

  3. Victoria Canote 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    At first, I was relieved to receive the news that San Jose Unified had finally settled on a “distance learning” model for the fall. However, after reading further about the proposal, I realized that their version of distance learning still requires teachers to live stream from their classrooms, which raises many concerns about privacy issues for teachers and parents. More importantly, the proposed plan still puts teachers and other staff at health and safety risks … Read More

    At first, I was relieved to receive the news that San Jose Unified had finally settled on a “distance learning” model for the fall. However, after reading further about the proposal, I realized that their version of distance learning still requires teachers to live stream from their classrooms, which raises many concerns about privacy issues for teachers and parents. More importantly, the proposed plan still puts teachers and other staff at health and safety risks when the coronavirus is at an all time high. Most districts in California are having teachers do distance learning from their homes to protect them from infection and death.

    The district’s new plan would require teachers to live stream from their classrooms many hours a day. Ed Code 51512 “prohibits recording without prior consent of both teacher and principal.” San Jose teachers have not been asked if they agree to being recorded all day in the classroom. Furthermore, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (20 USC { 1232g }) (34 C.F.R. of student records parent permission/ opt out) protects parents, and allows them to “opt out” of their child being a part of a livestream. To my knowledge, SJUSD has not asked parents for permission to livestream their children. Other districts have included language in their memorandums of understanding that has protected parents, students, and teachers from live streaming all day. Therefore, they are conducting distance learning from home, as it should be. Daily live interaction does not mean that it has to be livestreamed six hours a day. Other districts are fulfilling the requirement of daily interaction with students with prerecorded lessons, and some synchronous lessons. Why can’t SJUSD do this?

    Most importantly, requiring teachers to return to the classroom for six hours a day is a risk to our health! It is still unsafe to return to an institutionalized setting of any kind. Current research has proven that the coronavirus lingers in the air and recirculates through filtration systems. With janitors, technology people, principals, and resource people all coming through classrooms and no testing in sight, teachers and other staff will be exposed to recirculated air that is potentially contaminated with the virus. Someone will get sick! Please see “Coronavirus in the Air – How to Clean Coronavirus from the Air,” by Mooney, Stein, and Steckleberg.

    You are forcing teachers to use communal bathrooms which could be infected with the virus. Many teachers have their own children at home. What will they do? If they have the option to bring them to their classrooms, you are allowing more opportunities for spread of this disease, and defeating the idea od stopping the spread that distance learning is meant to fix. Over the summer, teachers had to sign up to be on campus with a mask, six feet apart from others, with a maximum capacity of twelve to fifteen teachers on campus at a time for a limit of one to two hours. Now, the district is going to require hundreds of people on campus at one time for six to eight hours a day, even though positivity rates are at an all time high. (around 4%)

    In his address to the public on Friday, Governor Newsom mandated that educators must be tested, and it is the employers’ responsibility to test. The district is reopening a public institution, regardless if students are returning. How will the district fulfill the governor’s mandate for testing?

    In closing, the district’s revised plan is still unsafe and unacceptable. The plan puts teachers and staff at risk for contracting the virus. The plan also raises legal concerns about privacy for students, parents, and teachers. Private industries as well as Federal Government employees continue to work from home because of the shelter in place mandate from the state. Teachers from other districts are conducting class from the safety of their homes. I believe teachers can be more effective from home with prerecorded lessons and live interaction over Google classroom or Canvas. Please persuade the district to revise the current plan to allow teachers to run virtual classrooms at home, for the safety of all of the SJUSD employees!!
    Sincerely,
    Victoria A. Canote

    Third Grade Teacher

    Trace Elementary School

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

      Thanks for your comment, Victoria. I encourage you to read my previous story about Ed Code 51512. I know that CTA has taken the position that you cite, but it's a pretty extreme interpretation of a law written before the internet was created. It was written to prevent unauthorized recordings of classroom instruction by visitors. With online instruction, the teacher is doing the recording and the live instruction. Fortunately, other local CTAs are not fighting the … Read More

      Thanks for your comment, Victoria.

      I encourage you to read my previous story about Ed Code 51512. I know that CTA has taken the position that you cite, but it’s a pretty extreme interpretation of a law written before the internet was created. It was written to prevent unauthorized recordings of classroom instruction by visitors. With online instruction, the teacher is doing the recording and the live instruction.

      Fortunately, other local CTAs are not fighting the requirement that teachers do live instruction, because they realize, without in-school instruction, live Zoom instruction is the next best thing. It’s good for your students

      So, to make sure I understand you, you are saying it is unsafe to request teachers to return to empty classrooms to record their lessons or to broadcast live, to ensure that teachers will have a quiet place with good broadband? I don’t understand the risk.

  4. Jessica G 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    In the gov’s pandemic plan priority #5 was rigorous distance learning but the new guidance did not have any mention of this item. Where is the Administration’s updated guidance on this? The Gov refered to daily live teaching in his press conference which is not what SB 98 states. Are expectations for distance learning different (higher) if all school is virtual vs. working in conjunction with in-person class?

  5. el 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    There are some new articles out over the weekend that suggest that schools were a significant vector in Israel and South Korea, and that middle school students in particular may be significant vectors. In my area, the country reports breakdowns by age and there's been quite a few new cases under 18 in July, up from 0 through June. Many districts had a plan for dividing classes into two batches plus a set of permanent distance … Read More

    There are some new articles out over the weekend that suggest that schools were a significant vector in Israel and South Korea, and that middle school students in particular may be significant vectors. In my area, the country reports breakdowns by age and there’s been quite a few new cases under 18 in July, up from 0 through June.

    Many districts had a plan for dividing classes into two batches plus a set of permanent distance learning, and for each blended class to come in two days a week. The idea there is to separate groups so if one group is exposed, they aren’t all exposed, but either way the teacher is exposed to both groups. If the teacher is exposed, and worse, if the teacher becomes ill, we suddenly have to scramble to move that class to 100% distance learning… with a substitute teacher, assuming we can find a substitute teacher. The way to prevent this scenario is by providing the teachers with true PPE – N95 masks – to wear 100% of the time but sadly, no one was proposing to make that quantity available to schools when even nurses are not able to get them.

  6. Rich Batey 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    I miss the time when we had a free society — a society that allowed individual citizens and individual schools to decide for themselves how best to protect themselves and their children from contagions — including past contagions in the US that were far worse than COVID 19.

  7. SD Parent 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    I appreciate the Governor attempting to the lead on this rather than have every LEA figure it out on their own. However, this one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work the same in large counties versus small ones, where school district and county SARS-CoV-2 infection rates are more likely to mirror each other. Take San Diego County, currently on the state's watch list. The total COVID-19 positive case count is 0.258% of the population living in … Read More

    I appreciate the Governor attempting to the lead on this rather than have every LEA figure it out on their own. However, this one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work the same in large counties versus small ones, where school district and county SARS-CoV-2 infection rates are more likely to mirror each other.

    Take San Diego County, currently on the state’s watch list. The total COVID-19 positive case count is 0.258% of the population living in Solana Beach, but 2.56% of the population in Spring Valley, nearly ten times higher. These areas are located 30 miles apart and have entirely different school districts, yet would fall under the same reopening mandate based on the county statistics.

    It’s even worse for the largest county, San Bernardino, which encompasses more than 20,000 square miles and is also on the state’s watch list. The total COVID-19 positive case count for Twentynine Palms is 0.06% of the population, while the positive case count in San Bernardino is 1.61%, nearly 27 times higher. These two cities are 90 miles apart and have entirely different school districts, but again would fall under the same reopening mandates based on the county statistics.

    What about counties that have correctional facilities with high COVID-19 positive counts among inmates, who aren’t mixing with the general population? Will these cases impact students’ abilities to have access to in-person learning?

    I hope that better guidelines can be developed in conjunction with county public health departments that take into account the local communities’ statistics (e.g. in larger counties or those with “contained outbreaks” like prisons) so that students aren’t needlessly forced into distance learning in school districts where it would be (relatively) safe to reopen schools due to the one-size-fits-all approach that requires school districts to bear the possibly insurmountable onus of asking for a waiver.

  8. Marsha 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    So where do we get the waiver from and who do we submit it to?

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

      Your superintendent must initiative the process, Marsha.

  9. Dina Pielaet 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Will Swaim called for opening school this fall without requiring masks or social distancing. I know it is hard when you arrive on earth from planet “ignorance” to fully understand to current situation relative to a pandemic. But this visitor from a strange land should educate himself as to the current wave of new patients in hospitals, and those falling to COVID, some as young as 13. Perhaps on his planet, they sacrifice the old and the young alike!

  10. Melissa 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Scott Rodd’s article on Capital Public Radio’s page mentions that “the administration included a carveout for elementary schools to reopen if a superintendent requests a waiver and a local health officer approves it.” Unfortunately the CapRadio page doesn’t allow comments, so I’m asking for clarification here if anyone has an answer. I must have missed that carveout information in the announcement, and I can’t find it in the published document. If this is true, it … Read More

    Scott Rodd’s article on Capital Public Radio’s page mentions that “the administration included a carveout for elementary schools to reopen if a superintendent requests a waiver and a local health officer approves it.” Unfortunately the CapRadio page doesn’t allow comments, so I’m asking for clarification here if anyone has an answer.

    I must have missed that carveout information in the announcement, and I can’t find it in the published document. If this is true, it would seem to put the burden back on local administrators and health officials to make decisions based on community politics and pressures.

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

      It is true and can be found as a footnote on page 1 of this document. Here is the wording for a waiver to permit in-school instruction for an elementary school in a county under the 14-day closure: 2 A waiver of this criteria may be granted by the local health officer for elementary schools to open for in-person instruction. A waiver may only be granted if one is requested by the superintendent (or equivalent for charter or private … Read More

      It is true and can be found as a footnote on page 1 of this document.
      Here is the wording for a waiver to permit in-school instruction for an elementary school in a county under the 14-day closure:
      2 A waiver of this criteria may be granted by the local health officer for elementary
      schools to open for in-person instruction. A waiver may only be granted if one is
      requested by the superintendent (or equivalent for charter or private schools), in
      consultation with labor, parent and community organizations. Local health officers
      must review local community epidemiological data, consider other public health
      interventions, and consult with CDPH when considering a waiver request.

      • Melissa 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

        Thank you! I was looking at the 19 page document: files.covid19.ca.gov/pdf/guidance-schools.pdf
        which does not mention that footnoted information. I see the documents must be read together.

  11. Randy L. Mont-Reynaud, PhD 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Thanks For the update. One question: So, which counties? San Mateo is not on list as of yesterday, but high school serve students from Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. The latter are of course in the adjacent Santa Clara County. What is the current verdict on which counties, please? Interestingly this protection for older folks for the adults is standard procedure among many other world communities, tribal communities, subsistence economy communities: adults specifically men … Read More

    Thanks For the update. One question: So, which counties? San Mateo is not on list as of yesterday, but high school serve students from Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. The latter are of course in the adjacent Santa Clara County.

    What is the current verdict on which counties, please? Interestingly this protection for older folks for the adults is standard procedure among many other world communities, tribal communities, subsistence economy communities: adults specifically men were fed first because their labor was needed in order to provide food, nourishment for the children and the community. So in those days and in those places it was not our Western philosophy of women and children first. I find this interestingly paralleled in the governors decision, although of course working people will be hard put to go to work without child care that is, er, day care..lThat is public schools…!

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

      You’ve got me stumped, Randy, when San Mateo students attend school in Santa Clara County. Keep an eye out for changes in the county status, as updated on this map. I’d be surprised if the two counties weren’t in the same status soon, whether on or off the list.