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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