Gov. Newsom Outlines Strict Guidelines For Schools
California Gov. Gavin Newsom laid out strict criteria Friday for school reopenings that makes it unlikely the vast majority of districts will have classroom instruction in the fall as the coronavirus pandemic surges.
The rules include a mandate that students above second grade and all staff wear masks in school.
Newsom’s new guidance mandates that public schools in California counties that are on a watch list for rising coronavirus infections cannot hold in-person classes and will have to meet strict criteria for reopening. That's disappointing news for local school districts such as Poway Unified, which hoped to welcome some students back for in-person instruction in the fall.
"We have been planning for two options all along with a mindset that we need to be prepared to have the entire district be virtual if that was a situation that arose during the school year," said Carol Osborne, Poway Unified associate superintendent of learning support services. "I think it just now has arisen sooner than we anticipated."
The school district is considering multiple options, such as starting different grade levels on different dates or pushing back the start date to give the county more time to get off the monitoring list, she said.
The state's guidance says all school staff and all students in grades three to 12 will be required to wear face coverings. Younger students will be encouraged but not required to wear masks. Osborne was relieved by this new rule.
"I think for especially for some of our older kids, that’ll help put our minds at ease for a lot of our teachers," she said.
The governor’s strict new regulations mark a dramatic shift from his earlier position that it was up to local school districts and boards to decide when and how to reopen. His announcement came as many of the state’s 1,000 school districts are set to resume instruction in mid-August, with many still finalizing reopening plans.
“Planning for the reopening of the 20-21 school year has really been a roller-coaster ride,” said Robert Meszaros, a spokesman for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools’ office. Kern County, north of Los Angeles, is not on the watch list but expects it could be soon and will be affected.
Meszaros said that while the governor's announcement wasn't unexpected, “it is very different from the directive that was given just a few short weeks ago when schools were encouraged to open for the 20-21 school year with in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible."
With many school districts struggling over the decision, teachers unions, parents and school officials have been urging Newsom to provide more direction on whether it is safe to return. This week, California reported its second-highest one-day totals in infection rates and deaths since the start of the pandemic. Nearly 7,500 people have died in California — more than 1,200 of them in the past two weeks.
Several large school districts have already said their schools will begin the new term virtually, including Los Angeles and San Diego, the state’s two largest with a combined enrollment of 720,000 K-12 students. San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, Long Beach, Santa Ana and San Bernardino are among the other districts opting not to immediately return to classrooms.
Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said it was “disheartening and unfortunate” that LA County students can’t have a normal first day back at school but also necessary.
“This week, Los Angeles County has unfortunately reached grim milestones every day. We have reported the most cases in a single day, the most hospitalizations and tragically high death numbers,” Ferrer said.
Los Angeles County is on the governor's watch list because of concerning coronavirus transmission and hospitalization rates. Being on the list had already put restrictions on the ability to reopen various segments of the economy. That means schools will have to open with distance learning.
Newsom's guidance lays out in detail when classrooms and schools would have to close if there is an outbreak. If a student or educator test positive for the virus, a classroom would have to close and the students and teacher would quarantine for 14 days. An entire school should revert to distance learning if it reports multiple cases, or 5 percent of students and staff test positive within a 14-day period.
Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, said the union was thankful Newsom provided direction for schools Friday. But he said the rules for resuming in-person learning should be even stricter: Schools shouldn't be allowed to open until cases decline for 14 straight days within a county and statewide.
“Everybody involved wants in-person learning. We know that is the best way to provide education. But there is a safety issue here,” he said.
The California Teachers Association, which represents 310,000 members, had pointedly urged Newsom last week not to reopen schools “until it is safe."
Republican Assemblyman Kevin Kiley accused the governor of listening to “special interests, not science” in laying out the rules.
“Rather than adopting a balanced approach that provides California families options for classroom-based and home-based learning, the governor is shutting down the vast majority of schools across the state,” said Kiley, of Rocklin.
Schools across California closed in March as the state ramped up virus-related restrictions. The move to distance learning was rocky for teachers, parents and students, particularly those who lacked the right technology or internet access. Newsom noted the state budget includes more than $5 billion to help students suffering from learning losses.
Schools will now be required to introduce “robust distance learning programs,” something teachers have said they are striving for but may be easier said than done.
The rules call for regular coronavirus testing of school staff and working with county contact tracers if an outbreak occurs, Newsom said.
Superintendents will be able to submit waiver requests to re-open elementary schools, for approval by the local health officers, but it was unclear how strict or lenient authorities would be when examining those requests.