Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education
Fifth-grade students sit behind protection shields at socially distanced desks.

As educators around California await further guidance from Sacramento on school reopening, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a color-coded guide to help school districts decide under what conditions they could offer in-person instruction.

The CDC guidance bears a striking resemblance to what California already has in place. But it could generate more confusion because the color codes it has in mind don’t match California’s four-tier system, and in general are less stringent than the state has set for each level.  Under the CDC standards  more schools would be allowed to open than in California in districts in communities with higher new case and test positivity rates. State health officials will have to decide whether to change California’s system to match the CDC’s recommendations, or to leave the state’s system in its current form.

The biggest difference is that California’s standards for opening school levels have the force of law, while the CDC’s guidance are merely intended as a guide for states and local districts.

In one of the strongest statements on this topic yet from the CDC, the guidance states that “K-12 schools should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do so safely. Schools should be prioritized for reopening and remaining open for in-person instruction over nonessential businesses and activities.”

Despite this strong statement, the new guidance leaves crucial decisions around vaccinations and testing as voluntary strategies that could be implemented at the discretion of local communities.

Reinforcing what Gov. Newsom has been saying, the CDC says vaccinations “should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction.” It also does not require schools to do asymptomatic testing of staff and students, although it says that schools “may elect” to do so “as a strategy to identify cases and prevent secondary transmission.”

While California educators try to digest the new, lengthy CDC guidelines, they are also awaiting the outcome of negotiations between Gov. Newsom and the state Legislature regarding efforts to come up with a more robust school re-opening plan, which could complicate the entire system even further. Key elements of Newsom’s “Safe Schools for All” plan are in limbo, after coming under intense criticism from a range of sources.

A week ago, Newsom indicated that a revised strategy would be issued within days. But sources say that the negotiations have been intense, and difficult. As of 1 p.m Friday, no announcement had been made, and none appears to be forthcoming today.

The new CDC guidance for school reopening envisions a phased in approach based on red, orange, yellow and blue tiers. In contrast, California’s tiers are purple, red, orange and yellow. Unlike California’s tiers, in which purple is the most restrictive category, the CDC’s color codes don’t include purple, and is the most restrictive category.

Under the CDC plan, schools in the blue and yellow tiers could open for “full-in person instruction,” along with sports and extracurricular activities, as long as strict social distancing and masking practices are followed. In the orange tier, K-12 schools could also open, but in a more restricted way — either by having hybrid instruction, with some classes offered via distance learning and others in-person, or through what the CDC calls “reduced attendance.”

In the red tier, middle and high school students would have to remain in a distance learning mode, unless schools “can strictly implement all mitigation strategies.” All sports and extracurricular activities would have to be carried out virtually.

It will take time and effort to sort out the differences in how the CDC and California define their various color codes.

The CDC uses similar measures to California in determining what color a district is assigned — the average rate of new infections and the test positivity rate. But the CDC’s definitions are slightly different. The CDC, for example, takes into account the weekly rate of new cases, while California looks at daily cases. A school would be in the CDC’s red tier, equivalent to California’s purple tier, if a community has more than 100 weekly new cases per 100,000, and a positivity rate of over 10%. Under California’s system, a school is in the purple zone if there are more than 7 new cases per day, and a positivity rating of 8%.

In another significant development, the California Dept. of Public Health has issued long-awaited information on the extent to which local districts are offering in person or remote instruction. The maps show that many districts are offering in-person instruction, but far fewer are doing so for middle schools, and even fewer for high school students.

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  1. SD Parent 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    The map of districts offering in-person vs. online learning is deceptive because many of the largest school districts (e.g. Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified) in higher-density areas are only providing online instruction such that the actual number of students doing distance learning is much higher than the map would indicate. Why not publish a chart of the data that goes with the map that cites how many and what percentage of students are … Read More

    The map of districts offering in-person vs. online learning is deceptive because many of the largest school districts (e.g. Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified) in higher-density areas are only providing online instruction such that the actual number of students doing distance learning is much higher than the map would indicate. Why not publish a chart of the data that goes with the map that cites how many and what percentage of students are participating in distance, hybrid, or in-person learning in each district?

    Meanwhile, the elephant in the room is that students won’t be returning to classrooms until legislators and the governor set mandates that supersede local collective bargaining, where teachers’ unions (particularly in these same, large, urban school districts) are allowed to dictate under what – if any – conditions they will return to classrooms, while constantly adding new requirements.

    Case in point: In San Diego Unified, the educators’ union (SDEA) initially insisted on PPE, facility upgrades, and social distancing requirements. Then they wanted frequent Covid-19 testing as a requirement for returning to in-person instruction. Now that the district has Covid-19 testing, SDEA is insisting on teacher vaccination – and full immunity (e.g. potentially 6 weeks after the first injection) – to return to in-person instruction.

    SDEA and district leaders are now talking about planning for in-person instruction in the fall, a tacit admission that all the talk about in-person learning that the district has been peddling since June 2020 was nothing more than talk. Parents now fear that the next requirement SDEA will require before in-person instruction happens will be mandatory vaccination of the children.

  2. marco 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    This new CDC guidance and new guidelines from the state are not going to have any effect at all. The consensus of the medical community and the evidence from schools and districts that have reopened is playing literally no part whatsoever in local district-level discussions about reopening. I am watching very closely in my kids' district and several neighboring districts, and the issues that come up are (1) what's logistically doable for the district, and … Read More

    This new CDC guidance and new guidelines from the state are not going to have any effect at all. The consensus of the medical community and the evidence from schools and districts that have reopened is playing literally no part whatsoever in local district-level discussions about reopening. I am watching very closely in my kids’ district and several neighboring districts, and the issues that come up are (1) what’s logistically doable for the district, and (2) what the teachers union wants, which leads to discussions about maybe, someday, possibly thinking about starting to talk about when it would be okay to begin to plan for kids to return, or in the more “responsive” districts, and redefining “return to school” as bringing in kids for a couple of hours/week of social emotional time. Literally zero discussion about the experience of schools that have open fully or for hybrid instruction, literally zero discussion about what is the consensus of medical/scientific opinion.

    Replies

    • SunnyinSD 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      It sounds like you have kids in school but don't actually work in a school. I work in a school system. The primary issue here is how widespread COVID is in our community. Even bringing back small groups of students results in many student not being able to continue to attend because either themselves or families are positive with Covid. Many other families either don't report symptoms and if they do report, … Read More

      It sounds like you have kids in school but don’t actually work in a school. I work in a school system. The primary issue here is how widespread COVID is in our community. Even bringing back small groups of students results in many student not being able to continue to attend because either themselves or families are positive with Covid. Many other families either don’t report symptoms and if they do report, decide not to test because they don’t want their family to be the family that shut down an entire classroom or program. The result is that as a school we know only a fraction of the positive cases on campus and from what we know, there’s already a significant amount.

      So it’s not really about logistics or teacher’s unions but instead, how we have let Covid run wild in our region, state and country. We now have to deal with the impact from that decision. If you’re angry about your kids not being back in school, please direct it to those who have not acted responsibility and decisively to reduce the spread of disease.

      • Kimmy B 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

        That’s not the case in our school district, Carmel Unified in Carmel. Here, community spread is lower than 3 per 100,000 but the teachers union has managed to delay reopening in any form, other than small cohorts of teachers kids. It’s absolutely absurd and shows that local unions have way too much power. Public Education in California should be for the benefit of the kids. It is not.

        • Justice 1 week ago1 week ago

          Carmel is extremely small and most people there do not work within the town. So the reluctance is due to cases outside of your area because while it's technically a smaller area, the cases surrounding Carmel are much higher. It doesn't have to do with teachers unions and we have so many parents complaining like yourself in Southern California - but you are not a teacher putting yourself in harm's way. Most schools are not … Read More

          Carmel is extremely small and most people there do not work within the town. So the reluctance is due to cases outside of your area because while it’s technically a smaller area, the cases surrounding Carmel are much higher.

          It doesn’t have to do with teachers unions and we have so many parents complaining like yourself in Southern California – but you are not a teacher putting yourself in harm’s way. Most schools are not well prepared to reopen and in the case of my spouse’s school district, they were talking about reopening when well over 1% of the population was testing positive every week … so to think that the districts are listening to scientific feedback in their preparation is naive in many places.

          If not for the unions in our area, our teachers would have gone back sooner and would have spread Covid even more. And if you haven’t had a serious case of it, it disrupts the entire family because one person has to quarantine while the other takes care of everything else.

          We also opened up last year, only for at least one school having to shut down because Covid spread so rapidly that there were not enough teachers, substitute teachers and faculty to run the school.

      • simon 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

        @SunnyinSD, where's data point you are referring to? Districts already opened are doing regular test and I've not seen the numbers you are referring to. I think the primary issue is the fear that people in a school system have. many of the communities and societies are being partially/fully open. People should realize that Covid-19 won't go away anytime soon, even with vaccine. It's a virus we need to live with for a while, just … Read More

        @SunnyinSD, where’s data point you are referring to? Districts already opened are doing regular test and I’ve not seen the numbers you are referring to.

        I think the primary issue is the fear that people in a school system have. many of the communities and societies are being partially/fully open. People should realize that Covid-19 won’t go away anytime soon, even with vaccine. It’s a virus we need to live with for a while, just like flu, measles or HIV. Do you know how long it took to eradicate chicken pox? It’s more than 10 years. Many essential workers have been back to work for months and it’s not contributing to the major surge. As CDC puts it (and many other research and scientific data), schools can be open safely with proper measures in place. I think I’m not even talking about we fully open schools one day suddenly. Why can’t we just take a phased approach – step by step – and adjust accordingly (as it’s happening in many other states)?