Q: What is the color-coded county tracking system and how does it affect schools?
Gov. Newsom released the “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” last August, changing the way the state monitors counties to determine when schools can open for in-person instruction.
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.
Its principal impact is on when businesses can reopen. But it has a major impact on a school’s ability to reopen for in-person instruction. Until recently, if a county was in the purple tier, schools could not open for in-person instruction for regular classes.
Q: What about the new “Safe Schools for All” plan announced by Gov. Newsom on Jan. 14?
On January 14, the California Department of Public Health issued new guidance which has significantly changed the requirements for school openings. Schools in counties in the purple zone are still not allowed to open for grades 7-12. However, schools are now allowed to open for K-6 grades even if they are in the purple tier, as long as their “average adjusted case rate” is below 25 cases per 100,000 population per day in that county, their test positivity rate is under 8%, and they file a Covid-19 Safety Plan.
Under the previous system, the case rate had to be in the red zone to open, 7 or under—nearly four times more stringent than the current standard.
As of March 1, all but two counties had an average adjusted case below 25 per 100,000 population, twice the number of the previous week, indicating the lower infection rates across the state. Of those, 4 had test positive rates of 8 percent. That means that, based on these numbers, in theory 33 counties could open for in-person instruction for K-6 grades soon, although whether that happens depends on a range of factors, including whether schools have the capacity to implement all the requirements of the Covid-19 Safety Plan.
Q: What must districts do in order to receive extra state funding for reopening?
Under the $2 billion reopening incentive plan announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders on March 1, districts can receive extra funding if they open kindergarten through 2nd grade classrooms by April 1. They also must bring back to school cohorts of students in all grades most harmed by the pandemic. These include homeless and foster youth, English learners, chronically absent students and students without access to the internet and students with disabilities.
These provisions, which are contained in Senate Bill 86 that is expected to be approved by the Legislature on March 4, will apply to all districts, including those in the “purple tier,” provided the daily average rate of Covid infections is below 25 positive cases per 100,000 county residents.
Districts must then reopen all elementary grades and at least one grade in middle school or high school, once Covid infection levels in their county decline to the “red tier,” the second-most restrictive level. Districts in the red tier must also open at least one grade from 7 to 12 either full-day or in a hybrid model, to get the extra money.
Q: Where can I find the “adjusted case rates” for my county?
Go the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy web page, and click on the California Blueprint Data Chart, an Excel sheet, which lists the adjusted rates.
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.
As of January 14, the state has also phased out the program allowing K-6 elementary schools in the purple tier to reopen if they received a waiver from local and state health authorities. However, they are still permitted to offer in person instruction or support services for students with special needs, including special ed students, English learner and homeless students, as long as they meet in small groups of 14 or fewer, known as cohorts.
Q: What impact did the Regional Stay Home orders have on schools, and what impact has Gov. Newsom’s repeal of the orders have?
Effectively none. These orders were issued in response to the pandemic spreading across the state in November 2020. The orders principally affected how businesses are operated and services that can be offered. Gov. Newsom repealed the orders on Jan. 25, 2021, allowing restaurants to provide outdoor dining, and remove other restrictions on services. But just as the original order had no direct impact on schools, their repeal will have no impact either, except to provide encouragement that things are improving slightly in the state. Some Californians also wonder, and are upset that restaurants and other services are open, but many schools are not able to under state guidelines.
Q. What is the current status of California’s counties?
All but 18 of California’s county’s are in the purple tier as of March 1, 2021. Humboldt, Trinity, Del Norte, Shasta, Plumas, Yolo, Marin, San Mateo, Modoc, San Francisco, Lassen, Plumas, Santa Clara, El Dorado, Napa and Mariposa counties are in the red tier. Alpine and Sierra counties are in the orange tier. See the map of counties on the CDPH website here for latest ranking.
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 the 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.
Every county in CA is assigned to a tier based on its rate of new #COVID19 cases and positivity rates.
— Office of the Governor of California (@CAgovernor) August 29, 2020
Q. Can elementary schools in counties rated purple apply for waivers to open in person?
A. No. As of January 14, the state has phased out the waiver program. But they may be allowed to open under the new “Safe Schools for All” plan described above, and affirmed in Senate Bill 86.
Q. Can schools that are already open for in-person instruction stay open under Gov. Newsom’s plan?
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, and 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 less than 25 new cases per 100,000 for at least 5 consecutive days in order to open for K-6 grades, and less than 7 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 7 business days of submission. See page 8-13 of the Jan. 14, 2021 CDPH guidance
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 Dept. 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
This quick guide was originally created and updated until November 2020 by Theresa Harrington. EdSource data journalist Daniel J. Willis contributed to this report.
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