Gov. Gavin Newsom handed down strict guidelines that will require most California schools to keep their buildings closed to start the year to cope with the coronavirus outbreak.
Those that do reopen during the coronavirus outbreak must require masks for older children as well as makes and consistent testing for staff.
“Learning in the state of California is simply non negotiable,” Newsom said during a Friday press conference. “Schools must, and I underscore must, provide meaningful instruction during this pandemic, whether they are physically open or not.”
He said Californians who want schools and businesses open could aid that effort by wearing masks to control the spread of the disease.
“If that’s your top priority… model the behavior than can actually extinguish this virus,” he said.
The California Department of Public Health built a five-point framework for schools to follow that Newsom said would allow students to learn during the pandemic.
The first point prohibits public and private schools in the more than 30 counties currently on the state’s COVID-19 watchlist from physically reopening their doors this fall.
Those counties represent more than 80 percent of the state’s population. A district can only open physically after its county experiences a 14-day decline in COVID-19 numbers.
In the Sacramento region, Sacramento, Yolo, Placer, Yuba, Sutter and San Joaquin counties are currently on the list.
Secondly, Newsom’s new instructions also require children in grades three and higher to wear masks, while face coverings for younger children will be strongly encouraged. Children with certain medical conditions are exempt from this mandate. Staff would have to wear the protective gear.
If a child forgets a mask, the schools are directed to provide one, but if students refuse to wear the face coverings, they’ll be sent home for distance learning. California has already purchased 18 million child-sized masks for schools across the state.
The third prong of Newsom’s guidelines include safety precautions like social distancing, which staff must adhere to and try their best to enforce for students. Anyone entering a school will have to go through health screenings, like temperature and symptom checks.
Testing and contact tracing are the fourth component. To monitor COVID-19 in education institutions, half the teachers and staff will rotate through monthly testing. Should students or educators test positive for the virus, a classroom would have to close and quarantine for 14 days.
If an entire student body and staff reach an infection rate of 5%, the school would need to close, and if there’s a widespread outbreak in a district, it would have to shut down, the new guidelines say. Newsom’s plan leans on community contact tracers to help schools navigate a potential outbreak.
Finally, Newsom’s framework ties $5.3 billion in education funding provided through the state budget to ensure schools provide rigorous distance learning options should they choose to pursue online-only instruction.
The money was set aside to help finance laptops and academic intervention assistance for families without the resources. Districts are expected to require daily live instruction and uphold rigorous curriculum expectations for students.
That additional support is needed, said Juno Duenas, executive director of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Support for Families of Children with Disabilities, especially for students with special needs.
Duenas said families of children with additional medical, behavioral and educational considerations are living in “dire” circumstances during this pandemic.
“We have single parents living with two kids with disabilities in a small apartment and they can’t go out, and obviously it’s really, really stressful,” Duenas said. “A family who has a kid with autism that used to have school all day for their kid and an afternoon program and they were able to work, and now they’re taking care of this kid 24/7.”
The Democratic governor had previously said reopening schools should remain a local decision that considers COVID-19’s spread in the community.
“There are different counties with local health guidelines and officials working in partnerships with their superintendent of public schools based on conditions on the ground,” Newsom said in a Monday press conference.
But with weeks before districts are scheduled to bring students and staff back for the 2020-2021 school year, teachers unions and parents urged Newsom’s administration to provide greater clarity on whether schools should, or even could, reopen safely.
Though both the state Department of Public Health and California Department of Education had previously put out coronavirus directions for districts, the recent statewide surge in COVID-19 cases had pushed some, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento, to postpone in-person learning at the start of the fall semester.
“Leadership by the governor was crucial at this time given the confusion in schools who were being pitted between tough new requirements that push in-person instruction and an increasing sentiment among teachers and staff that they were not going to return given the exploding rates of infection,” said Kevin Gordon, president of the lobbying firm Capitol Advisors Group, which represents California school districts. “His actions put the health of kids first.”
Still, Newsom’s announcement disappointed some education advocates who said the health risks for children staying at home could be greater than going back into a classroom with COVID-19 mitigation rules.
Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, a Rocklin Republican who has been vocal about schools offering in-person instruction this fall, said California parents should have the option to send their kids back into the classroom or stay home for online learning.
“I hope the governor will rethink the basic premise of today’s decision and allow more flexibility in the weeks and months ahead,” Kiley said. “This is not something that can continue indefinitely in our schools.”
Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, agreed that current circumstances aren’t ideal for kids and families, but California’s opportunity to fill classrooms with students this fall “is narrowing daily.”
“I’m a firm believer that kids learn best when they’re in the classroom,” said O’Donnell, chair of the state Assembly Education Committee. “I want kids back in the classroom, but before that I want them safe. Student safety is the highest priority, but getting them back in the classroom is the second highest priority.”
O’Donnell said it’s important Newsom’s guidelines let districts decide themselves whether or not to physically reopen this fall once they meet the virus safety requirements.
“What’s happening in Los Angeles County is different than what’s happening in Modoc County,” he said. “(It’s important) we don’t make blanket policies when the state isn’t blanketed in COVID.”