Quick Guide: What California’s now defunct color-coded county tracking system meant for schools

April 4, 2021
Young students sitting at school desks with plexiglass attachments.

Students at Westside Neighborhood School returned to school in October.

Q: When did California stop using the tier system? What does that mean for schools?

A: California retired the tier system June 15 after 20 million vaccines were administered, ending most of the Covid-19 safety restrictions. Though face coverings are no longer required in most settings in California, individuals will still be required to wear masks inside K-12 schools, childcare facilities and other youth settings regardless of whether or not they are vaccinated, according to a California Department of Public Health guidance. issued June 9. The guidance states that the rules could change for K-12 schools, since the state’s updated operating guidance for schools is “forthcoming.” That will follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s updated operational guidance for K-12 schools.

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

A: The four-tiered, color-coded system ranked 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 was on when businesses could reopen. But it also had a major impact on the ability of schools to reopen for in-person instruction. For months, if a county was in the purple tier, schools in that county could not open for in-person instruction for regular classes.

Q: What did the colors stand for?

A: Purple, or Tier 1, indicated that the virus was 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) indicated “substantial” spread of the virus, while orange (Tier 3) indicated “moderate” spread and yellow (Tier 4) indicated “minimal” spread of the virus in the county.

If one of the two metrics was higher than the other, the state would assign the county to the color associated with the highest rating. For example, if a county reported six cases per 100,000, but a 9% positivity rate, it would have had a purple rating.

The guidance on school reopenings 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 had 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 would be dropped.

Q: Under the last modifications, were schools allowed to open in the purple tier?

A: Yes, but only if Counties had 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.

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 updated standard.

All schools offering in-person instruction in Spring 2021 were required to post a Coronavirus Safety Plan by Feb. 1. In addition, they were required to post a dashboard listing Covid-positive cases of students and staff at each site that was open. Check out this dashboard from Capistrano Unified, for example, as well as its school safety plan.

Schools that hadn’t yet started offering in-person instruction but wanted to had to post their Coronavirus Safety Plan and submit it to their local health officer and to the state’s Safe Schools for All team for approval.


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 did a Covid-19 Safety Plan consist of?

A: It showed 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 were “strongly recommended” to consult with labor, parent, and community organizations. See Page 9 of the Jan. 14, 2021, CDPH guidance.

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