Credit: Amy Woropay
Students at Westside Neighborhood School returned to school in October.
This was updated Jan. 19 to reflect changes in the purple, red, orange and yellow tiers.

Q: What is the color-coded county tracking system and how does it affect schools?

A: Gov. Newsom released the “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” on Aug. 28 that changed the way the state monitors counties to determine when schools can open for in-person instruction. However, its principal impact is on when businesses can reopen.

The blueprint includes a four-tiered, color-coded system that tracks counties by the number of Covid-19 cases recorded each day and the percentage of positive cases out of the total number of tests administered, both averaged over seven days. It went into effect Aug. 31, and replaced the previous “county monitoring list.”

On Sept. 30, the California Department of Public Health released a new health equity metric that went into effect Oct. 6 and impacts a county’s ability to move between tiers.

What do the colors stand for?

Purple, or Tier 1, indicates that the virus is widespread in the county — with more than seven cases per 100,000 residents or more than 8% of tests results reported positive over seven days. Red (Tier 2) indicates “substantial” spread of the virus, while orange (Tier 3) indicates “moderate” spread and yellow (Tier 4) indicates “minimal” spread of the virus in the county.

If one of the two metrics is higher than the other, the state will assign the county to the color associated with the highest rating. For example, if a county reports six cases per 100,000, but a 9% positivity rate, it will be rated purple.

No public or private schools in counties rated purple can reopen for in-person instruction unless they receive an elementary waiver for students in grades K-6 permitted under Gov. Newsom’s July 17 executive order, or are following guidance for small groups of children, known as “cohorts.” See below for counties that move into purple from red.

Counties that move from purple to red can open for in-person instruction after they have remained in the red tier for 14 days. However, some counties may have stricter rules in place prohibiting schools from opening.

Q: What impact do the Regional Stay Home orders have on schools?

Effectively none. These orders were issued in response to the pandemic spreading across the state in November 2020. The orders principally affect how businesses are operated and a range of services are offered. Schools that are currently open for in-person instruction can continue offering it, regardless of whether their district is in a region subject to a stay home order. Other existing programs such as the waiver program for K-6 grades remain in place.

Q. What is the current status of California’s counties?

When the tier system was first rolled out in August, 38 of the state’s 58 counties were rated purple, meaning that the virus was widespread, and schools could not offer in-person instruction to all of its students. Elementary schools in purple counties can apply for a waiver, but only if the daily infection rate in the county is between 7 and 14 per 100,000 residents.

The number of counties rated purple steadily decreased to nine between then and Oct. 27 but began to rise to 13 counties by Nov. 10 as the state saw a rise in Covid-19 cases. After a major surge in Covid-19 cases between Nov. 10 and Nov. 16, Newsom pulled an “emergency brake” and downgraded an additional 28 counties to purple, bringing the total to 41. Another four were downgraded on Nov. 24, and six on Nov. 30, bringing the total to 51 counties. By Dec. 7, 52 counties were in the purple tier and by Dec. 15, 55 counties were in the purple tier.

Counties rated purple as of Jan.19 : Alameda, Amador Butte, Contra Costa, Colusa, El Dorado, Del Norte, Fresno, Glenn, Humboldt, Inyo, Kern, Kings, Lassen, Mendocino, Marin, Merced, Napa, Nevada, Orange, Placer, San Benito, San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Siskiyou, Solano, Sutter, Tuolumne, Ventura, Yolo, Yuba, Imperial, Los Angeles, Madera, Monterey, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, Shasta, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Tehama, Tulare, San Francisco, Lake, Calaveras, Modoc, Mono, Plumas and San Mateo counties.

These 54 counties now in the purple tier include 978 public school districts and 1,302 charters enrolling a total of 6,068,011 students, — 99.93% of the state’s total enrollment.

Counties rated red as of Jan. 19: Trinity, Mariposa and Alpine. Counties must remain out of the purple tier for at least 14 consecutive days for schools to open for in-person instruction.

Counties rated orange as of Jan. 19: Sierra.

No counties rated yellow as of Jan. 19

Schools in counties rated orange or yellow are free to reopen for in-person instruction based on modifications outlined in the state’s July 17 guidance and subsequent Aug. 3 guidance.

Q. If a school opens while its county is rated red, then the county moves back up to purple, does it have to close?

A. No. Schools that open while their county is rated red, but then move back up to purple may remain open, but must increase Covid-19 testing for staff. According to reopening guidance released July 17, “schools should begin testing staff, or increase frequency of staff testing but are not required to close” if cases or positivity rates increase countywide.

The state recommends that all schools that are open for in-person instruction test staff once every two months, or 25% of staff every two weeks. A school in a county that moves back into the purple tier should exceed this.

All schools are required to close when at least 5% of staff and students test positive for Covid-19 within 14 days. School districts must close if one-quarter of schools in the districts are closed due to Covid-19 cases. Schools can usually reopen within 14 days after campuses have been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, public health contact tracing is completed and the county public health department has given its approval.

https://twitter.com/CAgovernor/status/1299757544504619009?s=20

Q. Can elementary schools in counties rated purple apply for waivers to open in person?

A. Yes. Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s secretary of Health and Human Service, said on Aug. 28 that schools in counties with daily case rates of 7 to 14 per 100,000 residents can apply for elementary school waivers for students in grades K-6. Schools and districts must consult with employee unions, parents and the community before applying for the waiver, which must be approved by the county public health department in consultation with the state Department of Public Health.

Q. Why did the state change its county monitoring system in August?

A. The state decided to simplify its previous complex county monitoring system by reducing the number of metrics it was calculating (from six metrics to two) and, instead, creating a four-tiered system. Also, it will change the status of counties every seven days instead of daily. All of this is intended to create a more predictable, easily understandable way to determine when businesses and schools can reopen, Gov. Newsom said, when he introduced the new system Aug. 28.

The previous county monitoring list also included data related to the total number of tests administered daily, the number of people hospitalized with Covid-19, the number of patients admitted to intensive care units due to Covid-19 and the number of respirators available. But Ghaly said those are “lagging indicators” and the state wanted to focus on the earliest indicators that show what is happening currently in communities, so they chose case rates.

Focusing on test positivity rates also allows the state to remind the public about the ways to avoid becoming infected, he said, such as by washing hands frequently, wearing masks, maintaining physical distances of 6 feet and avoiding mixing with people outside of households, when possible.

However, both Ghaly and Newsom said the state can take an “emergency break” from reopenings if hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions begin to overwhelm county healthcare systems. On Oct. 6, Ghaly said that as schools have reopened, he has not seen any indication that the reopenings have contributed to the spread of Covid-19 in communities.

EdSource data journalist Daniel J. Willis contributed to this report.

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  1. Marta L. Wallace 2 months ago2 months ago

    Currently, California guidelines state that if a county is in the red zone and students return to school, then even when/if the county returns to the purple zone, schools will remain open. Most other places of employment will have to close or seriously curtail their business in the interest of public health. I understand that students face less harm from Covid 19, but there will be a large number of adults on campus thrown … Read More

    Currently, California guidelines state that if a county is in the red zone and students return to school, then even when/if the county returns to the purple zone, schools will remain open. Most other places of employment will have to close or seriously curtail their business in the interest of public health.

    I understand that students face less harm from Covid 19, but there will be a large number of adults on campus thrown together in unsafe working conditions. Why does our state value the lives of school staff members (janitors, office administrators, teachers and instructional assistants) so little? Who will teach the kids when the teachers become ill? We knew the hours would be long and the pay low when we signed up. We stand up for students when we suspect child neglect or abuse. When Sandy Hook occurred, we agreed to protect children from malevolent gun wielders. When the pandemic started, we doubled our already long days and weeks to upend our teaching systems, learn 5 to 10 new tech platforms and teach both students and parents how to use them so that we could bring high quality remote education to students.

    Asking us to risk our lives during known outbreaks of Covid is asking one thing too many. Play fair, California!

  2. Jan 2 months ago2 months ago

    Does not do me a lot of good. You need to put the world Purple, Red, etc, in the chart. I am color blind. Since my county is purple, I want to see what that means. Newsom or whoever does not get – We cannot all see colors. Off to another site.

  3. DR Michael Neal 3 months ago3 months ago

    It’s my understanding that if someone comes in and test positive for the coronavirus, then comes in a few days later and test positive again both of those tests are considered new cases. This is absurd if it is true? Also is there an argument for passive immunity? I just don’t trust the way the numbers are gathered, I would appreciate some reassurance.

  4. SANDRA L SWITZER 3 months ago3 months ago

    “Cases” is never clearly defined but is apparently being extracted from positive tests. A “case” is not someone hospitalized, not even necessarily symptomatic. It is a false standard and the state guidelines are ludicrous. Thank God lawsuits are finally being brought challenging the out-of-control power being grabbed by governors and local officials. The manmade nightmare of the misguided shutdowns must end.

  5. Frank J Rodriguez 3 months ago3 months ago

    Change the color code system to a square box with lines horizontal lines running through it start up with 54321 then an empty box. Color blindness prevalent thing. Lines would be a lot less perplexing.

  6. Jeff H Shasta County, Ca. 4 months ago4 months ago

    Shasta County is going Purple as of October 9th, due to 123 new cases at Bethel Church, another 60 case at Windsor Retirement Home owned by Bethel Church. And another 60 cases today alone totaling 270 in Shasta County.

    Replies

  7. Debra 4 months ago4 months ago

    Back in March, the week before we were finally allowed to be at home, I had my caseload which has a significant amount of students that will cough, wipe their nose on you or the table while we try to teach skills from their IEP. It amazes me that the board members are thinking the K-5 are a safe group; are they considering the special needs kiddos that have no concept of what is appropriate … Read More

    Back in March, the week before we were finally allowed to be at home, I had my caseload which has a significant amount of students that will cough, wipe their nose on you or the table while we try to teach skills from their IEP. It amazes me that the board members are thinking the K-5 are a safe group; are they considering the special needs kiddos that have no concept of what is appropriate regarding masks, distancing, washing hands and basic boundary awareness with their peers/teachers?

  8. SD Parent 4 months ago4 months ago

    This one-size-fits-all approach to counties of vastly different sizes doesn't work well. Irresponsible behavior by 18-22 year old students from San Diego State University (which was largely online-only, with very limited in-person courses) have already caused 878 SDSU students to test positive for COVID-19. This SDSU-affiliated COVID-19 hotspot represents 22% of all COVID-19 positive tests in the past 14 days and nearly pushed the entire county of San Diego--with its more than 3.3 … Read More

    This one-size-fits-all approach to counties of vastly different sizes doesn’t work well.

    Irresponsible behavior by 18-22 year old students from San Diego State University (which was largely online-only, with very limited in-person courses) have already caused 878 SDSU students to test positive for COVID-19. This SDSU-affiliated COVID-19 hotspot represents 22% of all COVID-19 positive tests in the past 14 days and nearly pushed the entire county of San Diego–with its more than 3.3 million people spread over more than 4,500 square miles–back into Tier 1 (purple), further jeopardizing not only the local economy with more restrictions on businesses but forcing half a million TK-12 students )and their parents) to remain at home, subject to sub-par “distance learning.”

    Explain how the state’s tiered rating system for such a large county–which would keep students home in school districts like Oceanside Unified or Vista Unified, which are located more than 40 miles away from SDSU’s campus–makes sense?

    Under this one-size-fits-all approach and a waiver process that only applies to elementary school districts, young students who are unlucky to be part of a unified school district will continue to have poor prospects for in-person instruction this school year.

    University of California at San Diego and University of San Diego students returned over the weekend, so now the entire county (hovering at 6.9 COVID-10 cases per 100,000 residents) holds its breath to see if irresponsible behavior by more college students will outstrip the efforts of millions of residents who are following social distancing and face mask guidelines in an effort to reopen schools.

  9. John Peter Valentine 5 months ago5 months ago

    What businesses can open in Tier 2?

    Replies