Credit: Amy Woropay
Students at Westside Neighborhood School returned to school in October.

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.

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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  1. Keldog 9 hours ago9 hours ago

    This was great – very informational.
    Thanks for having it!

  2. Robin Cole 1 week ago1 week ago

    The new CDC guidelines for re-opening schools have categories and color codes of community spread that are less stringent than California's categories. Is there any indication that California might adopt the CDC's categories? For instance the CDC recommends that if total new cases per 100,000 persons in the past 7 days is 50-99, that would be in the Moderate/Red category and CDC recommends that Middle/High Schools could go to school in person. … Read More

    The new CDC guidelines for re-opening schools have categories and color codes of community spread that are less stringent than California’s categories. Is there any indication that California might adopt the CDC’s categories? For instance the CDC recommends that if total new cases per 100,000 persons in the past 7 days is 50-99, that would be in the Moderate/Red category and CDC recommends that Middle/High Schools could go to school in person. That same 50-99 case level category is considered Purple in California. The tiers in CA are so stringent that a county would be considered Low/Blue in the CDC matrix – but Red in the CA blueprint. I hope someone is looking at those new CDC guidelines and will research how CA could align themselves to CDC standards.

  3. Ken 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    When will special needs programs open up? My daughter attends the ARC of San Diego in San Marcos, CA, & no one there can answer my question. They close program on March 17, 2020. I’m sure I’m not the only parent/caregiver who would like to get answers. Thank you

  4. karen vk 1 month ago1 month ago

    Can you clarify second to the last paragraph: Is it 7 days w/less than 25 cases per 100,000 or 7 cases per 100,000 for 5 day in order for schools w/ 7-12 grades to reopen ??

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

      Karen:
      The 25 new-case rate you are referring to is the threshold that would permit K-6 elementary schools to reopen in the purple tier. Middle and high schools that aren’t already operating cannot open in the purple tier. Rates for them have to fall below 7 cases per 100,000, which would place a county in the red tier.

      Hope that helps.

  5. Christina Haworth 1 month ago1 month ago

    Our children are essential. Open the schools. If the current teachers won’t return, then hire new teachers.

  6. John Parker 1 month ago1 month ago

    Unfortunately, it doesn't look like any high school sports will be played for the remainder of this school year. To get into the red tier each county needs less than 7 daily positive tests per 100,000 residents and a less than 8% positivity rate. It is easy to get below the 8% positivity rate, but with how easy and ubiquitous testing has become and with the sheer volume of people traveling despite the … Read More

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like any high school sports will be played for the remainder of this school year. To get into the red tier each county needs less than 7 daily positive tests per 100,000 residents and a less than 8% positivity rate. It is easy to get below the 8% positivity rate, but with how easy and ubiquitous testing has become and with the sheer volume of people traveling despite the travel ban, way too many asymptomatic people are getting tested daily yielding a much higher number of daily new cases. Some of these are false positives.

    Using Santa Clara county as an example, it has 2 million residents so it needs to get below 140 daily positive tests to move back to the red tier. Right now SC county is averaging 10 times that. The daily new cases threshold must be raised or we won’t move back to the red tier any time soon and forget about sports.

    Don’t test unless you have good reason and are concerned for yourself or your immediate contacts!

  7. Marta L. Wallace 3 months ago3 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!

    Replies

    • Noelle 3 days ago3 days ago

      I totally agree with the points you made. Safety should remain the top priority. Thank you for standing up for teachers!

  8. Jan 4 months ago4 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.

  9. DR Michael Neal 4 months ago4 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.

  10. SANDRA L SWITZER 5 months ago5 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.

  11. Frank J Rodriguez 5 months ago5 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.

  12. Jeff H Shasta County, Ca. 5 months ago5 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

  13. Debra 5 months ago5 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?

  14. SD Parent 5 months ago5 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.

  15. John Peter Valentine 6 months ago6 months ago

    What businesses can open in Tier 2?

    Replies