Most California parents, teachers and students are preparing for another semester of distance learning after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in July that the vast majority of schools would remain closed as many communities saw spikes in June and July.
But this week, state health officials created an opening for some elementary school kids to return to campus.
School districts in counties with fewer than 200 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people — twice the threshold that puts a county on the state’s monitoring list — can apply for a waiver to open elementary schools.
That means schools in more than a dozen counties including Los Angeles, San Joaquin and Santa Barbara are ineligible. But districts in other counties on the state’s watch list like Sacramento, San Francisco and Orange counties can seek waivers.
Only students up to sixth grade will be allowed to return, no matter the grade school configuration.
According to the guidelines, local health officials will have final say over in-person schooling. But districts are required to make safety plans publicly available and get input on them from parents, school staff and labor unions.
“They need to be consulting with their local communities,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan. “We want to make sure this is a close partnership within the community and that people are supportive of this application.”
Teachers unions have advocated against reopening schools until there is a significant decrease in the rate of infections.
In a statement, California Federation of Teachers President Jeff Freitas called the waiver allowance “reckless.”
“Decisions about re-opening schools must be guided by a singular goal of keeping our students, our families, and our communities safe,” he said. “Everyone — students, teachers, classified staff, and parents — wants to return to in-person instruction, but also everyone is afraid of the dangers of returning.”
Freitas said wealthier schools would be more likely to seek and be granted a waiver, further exacerbating inequities in education. Many lower-income students still do not have access to technology for distance learning.
While children are less likely than teenagers or adults to get sick or suffer severe symptoms from COVID-19, the research about their ability to spread the virus continues to evolve.
California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said the guidelines would prevent outbreaks seen at summer camps and childcare centers in other states.
“That’s why we studied [those cases] so closely. When activities are held indoors without face coverings, when activities that are much better done outdoors … happen indoors, you see transmission,” he said.
Ghaly specifically mentioned activities like singing and chanting as potential spreaders at day camps.
He said face coverings — which are recommended for students up to second grade and required for students in third grade and up — physical distancing and keeping students in smaller groups of four to eight people will help prevent such outbreaks.
“Bringing in person education and instruction is, of course, one of our key goals in California,” he said. “But as the governor has said, and as we've tried to communicate through this waiver process, we will only do it when we can assure that we've created a lower risk environment for spread.”
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