Schools in most California counties are unlikely to open by the start of the school year under a new plan announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom Friday.
“None of us want to see education virtualized,” Newsom said. “But safety is foundational, and safety will ultimately make the determination of how we go about educating our kids.”
Schools located in counties on the state’s monitoring list are prohibited from allowing in-person instruction, until they emerge from the list for 14 consecutive days.
The state’s monitoring list identifies at-risk counties based on a set of metrics, including the number of new infections, the “positivity rate” or percent of positive virus tests and increases in hospitalizations.
There are currently over 30 counties on the state’s watchlist, including some of the most populous, such as Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Clara.
The administration included a carveout for elementary schools to reopen if a superintendent requests a waiver and a local health officer approves it. The decision must be made “in consultation with labor, parents and community-based organizations,” according to a release from Newsom’s office.
The administration also laid out guidelines for when students are able to return for in-person instruction.
All school staff, and students in third grade and above, must wear a face mask or covering. Students in second grade and below will be “strongly encouraged” to wear them. The state has delivered 18 million masks to schools, according to the Newsom administration.
In-person instruction must be accompanied by temperature checks and symptom monitoring at the start of school days, as well as “regular testing” and contact tracing to mitigate any spread of the virus.
Newsom recognized the challenges of implementing widespread distanced learning, from ensuring students have access to reliable computers and internet, to the emotional and mental health challenges of keeping kids apart from their peers and the risk of curricula suffering.
“Clearly, we have work to do to make sure we are doing rigorous distanced learning,” Newsom said during a press conference Friday.
Under a newly enacted law, school districts will be required to provide devices and ensure internet connectivity for every student. Schools must also provide daily live interactions for every student with teachers and peers.
Newsom noted the most recent state budget included $5.3 billion to address “learning loss” and educational equity issues caused or exacerbated by the pandemic.
Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system, already announced it would rely on online distance-learning in lieu of opening campuses at the start of the school year. The decision is in effect until further notice.
The decision has precipitated other school districts announcing similar plans.
“It was a difficult decision,” said Richard Whitmore, superintendent of Lafayette School District in Contra Costa County, in an interview with CapRadio. “We’re now pivoting [completely] to distance learning, so we’re in a real sprint to the start of the school year to make sure we have something that’s going to work for every student.”
In a statement, Sacramento City Unified Chief Academic Officer Christine Baeta said the coronavirus has “completely upended our school system,” which led to the district’s decision to keep campuses closed in the fall.
“As we will not be returning in space to our classrooms, it is more important than ever that our distance learning plan be high quality and effective,” she said. “This means that our plan must include accountability and assessment, and that we meet each and every one of our students’ needs.”
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