Less than a week after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, one small rural school district in California remains open.
Outside Creek School District, consisting of a single K-8 school in Tulare County, is the last remaining open district in the state that the California Department of Education is aware of, officials said. Over the last two weeks, districts across the state shut down in droves as the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus continued to increase and local and state health officials warned that social distancing — keeping at least 6 feet away from other people — will be critical to slowing down the spread.
“The stay-at-home order did not say schools specifically, but it did seem clear to me that every Californian should remain in their homes unless they are conducting business that is essential,” California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said in an interview on Tuesday. “The best way we can flatten the curve and reduce exposure and risk is to shut down everything, including our schools.”
On March 19, Gov. Newsom issued an executive order telling Californians to stay at home, with exceptions for jobs and activities deemed essential. Schools are not required to close because their workers are considered essential. But nearly every other school district in California has closed or moved to distance learning as the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus continues to rise across the state.
When asked about why the district remains open, Outside Creek Superintendent Derrick Bravo said in an email that the majority of students at the school do not have access to the internet or computers at home in the small agricultural community. In addition, he said, “many families rely on the school for education, a safe environment, child care and nutritious meals.”
Thurmond said he has urged the school to close.
“I can’t reach the superintendent directly,” Thurmond said. “If I was talking to him now, I would urge them to close and heed what we have heard repeatedly from public officials and the governor’s orders.”
Tim Hire, superintendent of the Tulare County Office of Education, has also recommended that Outside Creek officials close the school. But only local school boards and the governor of California have the authority to close schools, Thurmond said.
“I would encourage (Outside Creek School District’s board and superintendent) to take a good hard look at the governor’s directive to stay home outside of essential functions,” Hire said. “Education is an essential function, and we are doing that in creative ways aside from coming to schools.”
Outside Creek has an enrollment of about 100 students, 81 percent of whom identify as Latino and 98 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to data from the California Department of Education.
The school is providing students with the option of independent study for parents who are concerned about sending their kids to school, but the campus remains open and in session for students and staff. Bravo did not respond to questions about how many students were opting for independent study.
But education officials say that staying open increases the risk of spreading the virus in the community. There are 17 positive cases of coronavirus in Tulare County, including one child, as of March 24, according to the Tulare County Public Health Department. Every other school district in Tulare County has already closed its doors, and the Tulare County Office of Education has moved to working remotely.
“Maybe it’s a case that the district is concerned about low-income families, students can’t get computers, all of these are real concerns,” Thurmond said. “But we are dealing with a worldwide crisis, a pandemic. My urge is for them to close for the safety of the children and the community.”
Thurmond said he is in contact with donors who might be able to provide laptops and other supports for the district if it closes.
In his email, Bravo cited a document for schools responding to the coronavirus from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that stated “early, short to medium closures do not impact the epi curve of Covid-19,” suggesting that short-term school closures are ineffective. Updated recommendations for schools from the Centers for Disease Control also state that districts should dismiss students if there is a confirmed case in a school; however, most districts decided to close last week after recommendations from local health authorities to prevent spread before a case is detected.
The approach to curtailing the virus has shifted quickly in California, going from containment to mitigation as confirmed cases continue to increase across the state. Statewide there are 2,102 cases of coronavirus and 40 deaths as of March 24, according to the California Department of Public Health.
Short of a statewide mandate to close schools, California state officials are trying to make it easier for schools to close and operate remotely. On March 13, Newsom issued an executive order to reimburse schools for days lost to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including covering costs to provide meals. The state Legislature also recently approved $100 million to cover cleaning costs for K-12 schools and child care centers.
It’s unclear what state officials will do if the district does not voluntarily close and confirmed cases continue to rise.
“I had not envisioned this scenario,” Thurmond said. “But we have to do the things that we can control, and that’s what we do every single day. That’s why schools are closed. We know that is important.”