Credit: Andrew Reed/EdSource

California is launched on a new in-person school year just as the highly contagious Delta variant of Covid-19 is sweeping across the country.

Delta has certainly complicated the well-laid plans of our school leaders, as it required expanded testing and some quarantines but, in contrast to many other states, the path to opening schools in this state has shown promising results thus far — thanks to the focused efforts of principals, teachers, support staff, parents and students.

And, with continued vigilance and state policy support, the year promises to be even smoother in the coming months.

As of this week, our 20 largest districts, plus hundreds of smaller districts, will have opened on schedule. The remainder are on course to do so as well. While community-based infections have been identified by schools’ testing programs and required some quarantines as students return, schools have largely made the necessary preparations to manage those processes.

As just one example of the strong planning that has allowed safe reopening, Los Angeles Unified tested students on their way back to school, identifying about 3,250 positive cases of Covid-19 out of 350,000 tests (less than 1%). The district sent those students and their close contacts (another 3,000 students) home to quarantine under medical care, preventing community cases from becoming a source of more widespread quarantine within the school system.

Regular testing that can reduce infection, along with universal mask use and improved ventilation systems, will continue for students and staff to ensure a safe and stable school year.  The large majority of parents and educators have voiced support and gratitude for these safety measures, as 97% of students have returned for in-person instruction.

This was made possible by the extensive planning of local leaders and by an intensive set of state supports designed to enable schools to safely engage in in-person instruction this school year in the face of the ever-shifting pandemic.  Gov. Gavin Newsom, along with state public health and education leaders, has been laser-focused on providing the tools and resources that would be needed. In March, Newsom signed a $6.6 billion package to fund safety measures such as personal protective equipment, classroom ventilation upgrades and Covid-19 testing to help schools bring students back on campus.

In addition to funds for safety and prevention measures, the package included $4.6 billion to expand academic, mental health and social-emotional supports, including over the summer. As a result, 9 out of 10 districts offered summer school and expanded learning programs that helped students reengage with in-person learning and reconnect safely with each other and their teachers. Moreover, 98% of districts used those funds to kick off the school year with expanded mental health, after-school and learning supports, like high-dose tutoring.

Alert to public health signals about the coming wave of Delta, on July 12 California was the first state in the nation to issue a renewed masking mandate for all adults and children in schools. Sixteen other states have now done the same — most of them in the last week — as they were overwhelmed with Covid cases in their schools.  On Aug. 11, California also became the first state to require vaccines or weekly testing of all school employees, on the heels of a similar requirement for all government workers. Now other states and large cities across the nation have begun to follow suit.

Since last spring, the state has at least partially vaccinated more than 80% of its eligible population. California has expanded outreach in multiple ways, including the deployment of vaccine vans for high-needs neighborhoods and school-located vaccine clinics for all who will host them. This can be an especially critical strategy for getting students vaccinated, given the important role that schools can play in encouraging parents to vaccinate their children.

The state also mounted a program to provide free Covid-19 testing to all schools and districts, including multiple options for the types of testing systems to meet community needs, and has distributed over 3 million testing kits. Nearly 700 of the state’s more than 1,000 districts have taken advantage of these programs to set up testing systems. School outbreak response teams offering testing and vaccine resources are being deployed to schools with the most acute challenges as schools deal with the cases that are coming in from the community.

By contrast, reopenings have been much more chaotic in states that have not embraced clear safety measures. Although schools have not yet opened in the Northeast and most of the Midwest, there have already been school closures for more than 700 schools in 158 districts across 25 states in the first two weeks.  Most of these cases are coming in from the community.

But when schools do not engage in safe practices — attention to masking, ventilation, hygiene, testing, tracing and quarantining — transmission can occur within the building.

School Closings (As of 8/30/21, via Burbio)

Until last week, few states required universal masking in schools, and at least eight states had forbidden mask mandates despite evidence that Covid cases were rapidly climbing in camps and school settings where children — and many adults — were unvaccinated and unmasked.
Overall case rates, as well as pediatric hospitalizations, have grown rapidly in these states.

The situation is perhaps most challenging in Florida, where the governor not only banned mask mandates but threatened school funding and employees’ salaries if they required students to wear masks in school. Florida case rates and pediatric hospitalizations have climbed to a level more than five times greater than California’s, with no signs of improving.

Source: Centers for Disease Control Data Table for 7-Day Moving Average of New Cases (per 100,000)
https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#compare-trends_comptrends-cases-daily-rate-log

 

Graph shows the number of new hospital admissions per 100,000 for the 0-17 age group. Source: Centers for Disease Control Covid Data Tracker (https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#new-hospital-admissions)

Meanwhile, California’s rates remain significantly below the national average. Case rates here actually began declining in the last week while continuing to rise in most other states.

The path to a safe and stable school year depends on continuing to increase vaccination rates in all households, and on continuing safe mitigation practices in schools. Science shows that multilayered strategies such as masking; vaccination; testing and screening; handwashing; and ventilation are highly effective at preventing infection. Many studies have shown that in schools and child care settings where these rules have been followed, there is little or no transmission within schools, even when there are high rates of cases in the community as a whole.

In particular, masking is the most fundamental and effective tool against this airborne virus.  In the countries that have kept their schools and societies open throughout the pandemic, masking has been a core strategy. It prevents transmission so well that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Department of Public Health, even when there is a case of Covid discovered, if the person infected and those exposed are all masked, quarantine is not needed if the exposed people are tested and remain asymptomatic.  This, too, will support in-person instruction with minimal disruptions throughout the school year.

The surest path to safe and full in-person instruction throughout the school year is a strong emphasis on these reliable prevention measures: vaccines, masks, testing, tracing and ventilation. Currently, nearly half (46%) of California’s 12- to 17-year-olds are vaccinated, and concerted efforts can increase this number in the weeks to come. A vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds is expected by early winter, followed within a few months by a vaccine for 2- to 4-year-olds.

As more of our districts hold vaccine clinics onsite for students and families, and as all of our schools continue their vigilance, Californians will be able to rely on safe schools, and we will likely see a continuing decline in case rates.  While there will be many challenging moments ahead, California’s policies can continue to lead the way through this pandemic to a safer future that supports students’ learning and development, their relationships and friendships, their social and emotional well-being, and their educational progress.

•••

Linda Darling-Hammond is president of the California State Board of Education and an adviser to Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Nicole Shelton 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    I guess it is all about how you frame "leading the way." The same email that shared this commentary also included an article on how teacher and substitute shortages are so severe that some school districts may close (this happened last year as well when some districts attempted reopening). How is that successful? We also have the issue with the independent study debacle: there are no staff to teach independent study or the virtual options being … Read More

    I guess it is all about how you frame “leading the way.” The same email that shared this commentary also included an article on how teacher and substitute shortages are so severe that some school districts may close (this happened last year as well when some districts attempted reopening). How is that successful?

    We also have the issue with the independent study debacle: there are no staff to teach independent study or the virtual options being attempted by districts. Our medically fragile students are still not accessing their education because the enrollment process in these Virtual Academies is so backlogged and inefficient. Some districts are three weeks into the school year and students are still without an education.

    Many would not agree with this commentary on the more functional levels.

    The box will not let me post our website but it is http://www.advocacysd.com

    Replies

    • Thomas Courtney 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      This article analyzed and provided evidence for the safe re-opening of schools as it relates to health and safety. Substitute shortages will only be aided by safely re-opening schools because fewer teachers will be out sick. Safely re-opening schools is priority number one in California. I believe this is the point that Mrs. Darling-Hammond made. We have many other worries and concerns, I agree and keeping vaccination rates high, along with the many things the … Read More

      This article analyzed and provided evidence for the safe re-opening of schools as it relates to health and safety. Substitute shortages will only be aided by safely re-opening schools because fewer teachers will be out sick. Safely re-opening schools is priority number one in California. I believe this is the point that Mrs. Darling-Hammond made. We have many other worries and concerns, I agree and keeping vaccination rates high, along with the many things the author pointed out, should be duly noted as having positive correlational benefits to many if not all of them. California is showing the rest of the nation how to do it. Thank you Mrs. Darling-Hammond for illustrating that in this article.

  2. White 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    This source information is not completely accurate when it comes to how safe it has been in school. Yes the schools have put in protocols and are doing their best at making sure that students can return safe as well as teachers but the reality of it is the schools are getting hit left and right hard. At least twice a week schools are receiving an exposure notice and the classrooms are missing 6 to … Read More

    This source information is not completely accurate when it comes to how safe it has been in school. Yes the schools have put in protocols and are doing their best at making sure that students can return safe as well as teachers but the reality of it is the schools are getting hit left and right hard. At least twice a week schools are receiving an exposure notice and the classrooms are missing 6 to 7 students a day per period at the junior high and high school. Teachers are out ill and are also catching covid.

    Right now lives are on the line and this information that you’re putting out to the public just isn’t quite true. I work at one of the largest school districts and no matter how media tries to downplay what’s going on, I am in the situation every single day and that information that you’re giving is not true.

  3. Todd 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    As a California teacher, I’d say we are doing terribly.

  4. Mansi 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    The schools are not at all safe for kids all over the U.S. Many children are getting sick everyday. Is the administration sleeping? There is no online learning offered by schools. The developing countries where there are very few cases are offering hybrid model to children. But the U.S., which is the most developed country and has highest number of Covid Cases, is forcing unvaccinated kids to go to schools, and making them sick. This … Read More

    The schools are not at all safe for kids all over the U.S. Many children are getting sick everyday. Is the administration sleeping?

    There is no online learning offered by schools. The developing countries where there are very few cases are offering hybrid model to children. But the U.S., which is the most developed country and has highest number of Covid Cases, is forcing unvaccinated kids to go to schools, and making them sick.

    This administration has made the life of parents miserable since they have to make choice between health and education of kids. Please wake up and make a mandatory rule for all schools to provide online learning as well for unvaccinated kids. There are many parents who want to keep their kids at home but there is no online option available. Stop making our kids sick!!

  5. Miral 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Please don't mislead the public saying it's community based spread. It's 100% school-based spread. And yeah California schools are little safer than other states because of mask mandates. Still there are multiple breakouts happened in different school districts e.g. Brentwood school district, Oakland school district, San Ramon School district etc. There are Covid cases in almost every school district and those all are school-based spread. There were very few cases in children before schools … Read More

    Please don’t mislead the public saying it’s community based spread. It’s 100% school-based spread. And yeah California schools are little safer than other states because of mask mandates. Still there are multiple breakouts happened in different school districts e.g. Brentwood school district, Oakland school district, San Ramon School district etc. There are Covid cases in almost every school district and those all are school-based spread. There were very few cases in children before schools reopened but now there are multiple Covid cases in children. So what’s changed? Schools reopened, the community is still same. So these are 100% school-based spread.

    Also, what kind of dictatorship is going on in U.S.? Why the unvaccinated kids are forced to go to schools?