Q: What is the color-coded county tracking system and how does it affect schools?
A: The four-tiered, color-coded system ranks counties by the average daily number of new Covid-19 cases and the percentage of positive cases out of the total number of tests administered, both averaged over seven days.
Its principal impact is on when businesses can reopen. But it also had a major impact on the ability of schools to reopen for in-person instruction. Until recently, if a county was in the purple tier, schools in that county could not open for in-person instruction for regular classes.
Q: Do we know when California stop using the tier system?
A: California intends to retire the tier system June 15, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in early April after 20 million vaccines were administered. In order for that to happen, the state must continue to have enough vaccine supply to meet the demand and Covid-related hospitalizations must remain low, according to the California Department of Public Health.
Q: What do the colors stand for?
A: 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.
The guidance on school reopenings has changed several times over the course of the pandemic. In early March, the state began to tie the criteria defining tier colors to increases in the number of Californians who have been vaccinated.
The measure changed again April 6, when the number of vaccinations reach a new threshold: 4 million shots administered in the state’s lowest income communities. The new parameters enabled counties to shift more quickly from purple and red tiers to the less restrictive orange, yellow and eventually a new “green” tier, when all Covid restrictions will be dropped.
The changes could hasten school reopenings in school districts that negotiated with employee unions to wait to reopen until infection rates fell to the orange tier. Orange will now be triggered once the daily rate of new Covid cases falls below 5.9 per 100,000 residents. Last month, the rate had to fall below 3.9 per 100,000.
Q: Under the latest modifications, are schools allowed to open in the purple tier?
A: Yes, but only if the average daily rate of new infections in a county is less than 25 per 100,000 residents.
Under the previous system, the case rate had to be in the red zone to open, seven cases per 100,000 or under — nearly four times more stringent than the current standard.
Q: What is the current status of California’s counties?
A: None of California’s 58 counties were in the purple tier as of April 15, 2021. Twenty-two counties are in the red tier, and the majority of California counties, 33, are in the orange tier. Three counties — Alpine, Sierra and Lassen — are in the yellow tier. See the map of counties on the CDPH website here for latest ranking.
Q: Can schools that are already open for in-person instruction stay open?
A: Yes. But their districts were required to post a Coronavirus Safety Plan by Feb. 1. In addition, they are required to post a dashboard listing Covid-positive cases of students and staff at each site that is open. Check out this dashboard from Capistrano Unified, for example, as well as its school safety plan.
Q: What about schools that wish to reopen for in-person instruction, and haven’t yet?
A: They can reopen after their district has posted a Covid-19 Safety Plan and submitted it to their local health officer and to the state’s Safe Schools for All team. Counties must have an “adjusted case rate” of fewer than 25 new cases per 100,000 for at least five consecutive days in order to open for K-6 grades, and less than seven for grades 7-12. For grades K-6, they may reopen if they do not hear back from their local health officer or the state that the safety plan is deficient within seven business days of submission.
Q: Where can I find the “adjusted case rates” for my county?
A: Go the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy webpage, and click on the California Blueprint Data Chart, an Excel sheet, which lists the adjusted rates.
Q: What does a Covid-19 Safety Plan consist of?
A: It must show that the district or local education authority is following the very extensive Cal/OSHA COVID- 19 Prevention Program and the COVID-19 School Guidance Checklist issued by the California Department of Public Health. While developing the safety plan, districts are “strongly recommended” to consult with labor, parent, and community organizations. See Page 9 of the Jan. 14, 2021, CDPH guidance.
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