SACRAMENTO — California will bar schools from reopening in counties hardest hit by the novel coronavirus pandemic until the counties stay off the state’s COVID-19 watchlist for at least 14 consecutive days.
Governor Gavin Newsom made the announcement Friday at a press briefing on school reopening guidelines.
Los Angeles County Public Health officials announced Friday afternoon that they will issue a new Health Officer Order later in the day to align county guidelines with the new California directive.
Newsom strongly urged anyone in reopened schools to wear face coverings and practice physical distancing — but also pushed distance learning as an alternative to reopening during the pandemic, which continues to rage across the Golden State.
Currently, 32 of California’s 58 counties including Los Angeles are on the watchlist, based on data including the number of new infections per 100,000 residents, test positivity rate and the change in hospitalization rate, among others.
Elementary schools in counties on the watchlist can reopen if the district superintendent requests a waiver after consulting with community groups.
The state order allows superintendents to submit school district waiver requests to re-open elementary schools for approval by the local health officer only after review of local epidemiological data and intervention strategies, and in consultation with CDPH.
Newsom said the state has earmarked $5.3 billion in additional funding to help schools safely reopen during the pandemic, with a focus on achieving distance learning equity. He is encouraging districts to use these funds to invest in laptops or other devices and to purchase wireless hotspots for students without access to the internet at home.
“None of us want to see education virtualized. I believe profoundly in the power of individuals being engaged with others,” Newsom said.
In schools that are allowed to reopen, all staff members and students in third grade and above must wear face coverings. Younger children are encouraged to wear face masks or shields but aren’t required to do so.
School personnel must remain six feet apart from each other and students at all times. Schools must administer symptom and temperature checks for staff and students at the beginning of each school day, and provide easy access to handwashing stations and disinfectant.
Schools must also be ready to implement quarantine protocols if necessary.
Staff must be tested on a rotating basis regularly to ensure their own safety and the safety of their students. State contact tracers will prioritize schools in the event of a surge in cases.
For schools that cannot reopen, Newsom said distance learning must be rigorous for all students. Teachers should interact with their students on a daily basis and must provide them with challenging assignments that are equivalent to those they would normally complete in the classroom.
Newsom also laid out guidelines for when schools are forced to shut down again but noted they should first consult with a public health officer. The governor said a classroom should close when there is a confirmed case and a school should close when multiple cohorts have confirmed cases or when more than 5% of the school has tested positive. Whole districts should shutter 25% of its schools are closed within a 14-day period.
“The one thing we have the power to do to get our kids back into school: look at this list again. Wash your hands, physically distance, wear a mask,” Newsom said.
“No part of our state is immune from the transmission of this virus — that’s why it’s imperative for everyone to wear a mask,” he said.
Statement from Tony Thurmond, State Schools Superintendent
“I want to commend the Governor for his leadership and for his focus on prioritizing public safety during what might be one of the most challenging experiences we will face in our lifetime. I appreciate the concern he expressed today as a father, his concern for the safety of California’s six million students, and his concern for the health and welfare of our schools’ educators and families.
“I also want to thank the Governor for the work he has led to ensure that our educators have necessary personal protective equipment—already on its way to our 10,000 schools—in the form of millions of units of face coverings, face shields, hand sanitizer, and thermometers.
“Today’s guidance from the California Department of Public Health lays out clear metrics for our schools so that they can best understand the conditions that determine when they must close. On Monday, the California Department of Education will host a meeting for our 1,000 school districts to unpack today’s guidance. We are grateful that our partners in the California Department of Public Health will present the guidance in this format and take questions from educators across the state.
“As so many of our schools will begin their academic year virtually, we remain committed to continuing to work with the Governor, the Legislature, the State Board of Education, the California Department of Public Health, and educators across the state to address ways we can improve distance learning. We must accelerate this effort to ensure there is consistency and continuity moving ahead and that we are doing everything in our power to offset learning gaps that have been exacerbated by this pandemic.”
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In a news release Friday, Newsom detailed his plan, which centers on five key areas:
1) Safe in-person school based on local health data
The California Department of Public Health Friday issued updated schools guidance that includes using existing epidemiological metrics to determine if school districts can start in-person instruction.
CDPH currently uses six indicators to track the level of COVID-19 infection in each California county as well as the preparedness of the county health care system – data that includes the number of new infections per 100,000 residents, the test positivity rate, and the change in hospitalization rate, among others. Any county that does not meet the state’s benchmarks is put on the County Monitoring List.
Schools located in counties that are on the Monitoring List must not physically open for in-person instruction until their county has come off the Monitoring List for 14 consecutive days. Schools in counties that have not been on the Monitoring List for the prior 14 days may begin in-person instruction, following public health guidelines. School community members – including parents, teachers, staff and students – can track daily data on whether and why their county is on the Monitoring List at https://covid19.ca.gov/roadmap-counties/#track-data.
There is a single exception. Local health officers may grant a waiver to allow elementary schools to reopen in-person instruction if the waiver is requested by the district superintendent, in consultation with labor, parents and community-based organizations. When considering a waiver request, the local health officer must consider local data and consult with the California Department of Public Health.
The Department also issued updated guidance for when schools must physically close and revert to distance learning because of COVID-19 infections. Following a confirmed case of a student who was at school during his or her infectious period, other exposed students and staff should be quarantined for 14 days. The school should revert to distance learning when multiple cohorts have cases or 5 percent of students and staff test positive within a 14-day period. The district should revert to distance learning when 25 percent or more of its schools have been physically closed due to COVID-19 within 14 days. Closure decisions should be made in consultation with local health officers. After 14 days, school districts may return to in-person instruction with the approval of the local public health officer.
2) Strong mask requirements for anyone in the school
In the updated guidance, all staff and students in 3rd grade and above will be required to wear a mask or face covering. Students in 2nd grade and below are strongly encouraged to wear a face covering. Students should be provided a face covering if they do not have one. The state has delivered over 18 million face coverings to schools to support them to reopen and ensure all students can participate in learning.
3) Physical distancing requirements & other adaptations
In the updated guidance, CDPH requires that all adults stay 6 feet from one another and 6 feet away from children, while students should maintain 6 feet of distance from one another as practicable. Anyone entering the school must do a health screen, and any student or staff exhibiting a fever or other symptoms will be immediately sent home. The guidance also provides that if anyone in a student or staff member’s household is sick, they too should stay home.
4) Regular testing and dedicated contact tracing for outbreaks at schools
The public health guidance recommends staff in every California school be tested for COVID-19 periodically based on local disease trends and as testing capacity allows. The governor also announced today that the state will provide resources and technical assistance for COVID-19 investigations in school settings.
5) Rigorous distance learning
Over the course of the pandemic, most schools will likely face physical closure at some point due to COVID-19. The Legislature and Governor Newsom enacted a budget that provided $5.3 billion in additional funding to support learning, and set requirements to ensure schools provide rigorous and grade-appropriate instruction. Under newly enacted state law, school districts are required to provide:
* Devices and connectivity so that every child can participate in distance learning.
* Daily live interaction for every child with teachers and other students.
* Class assignments that are challenging and equivalent to in-person instruction.
* Targeted supports and interventions for English learners and special education students.
See the full guidance from the California Department of Public Health at the bottom of this story.
L.A. County Aligns with State
“While it is disheartening and unfortunate that Los Angeles County students can’t plan for a normal first day back at school, we respect the Governor’s decision to insist that counties reduce the rate of community transmission before schools re-open for in-person classroom learning,” said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
“This week, Los Angeles County has unfortunately reached grim milestones every day,” Ferrer said. “We have reported the most cases in a single day, the most hospitalizations and tragically high death numbers. If we work together to do what is needed to slow the spread of the virus, this will help protect our children, our teachers and the many people who make a school function and who educate our children.
“I know this is difficult news for the children and families of Los Angeles County, and we will need to work together as a county to support quality distance learning opportunities for families and all children until students can get back to in-person instruction at their schools,” Ferrer said. “The Governor has made it clear that the path to re-opening schools is to get back to flattening the curve so that we can resume our recovery journey.”
In order for schools to re-open their campuses, Los Angeles County will have to remain off the monitoring list for 14 consecutive days.
Counties are on the monitoring list because they have not achieved more than 150 tests per day per 100,000 people, or have more than 100 cases per 1,000 residents, or have case positivity rates greater than 8%, or have a 10% or more increase in hospitalizations over the past 3 days, or less than 20% of ICU beds are open, or less than 25% of ventilators are available.
At this time, Los Angeles County is on the monitoring list because it has a positivity rate of 9 percent and case rate of 307 positive cases per 100,000 residents.
However, testing and hospital capacity remain adequate with almost 20,000 people tested daily. Both ICU bed and ventilator capacity remain adequate with 29% of ICU beds open and 64% of ventilator capacity available.
More details can be found on the Recovery Dashboard.
— By Dustin Manduffie, CNS, and SCV News Staff
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