Governor’s order means most California school campuses will not reopen at the start of the school year

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Photo: Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

Governor Gavin Newsom at a press conference in April 2020.

California school campuses in 32 of the counties hardest hit by Covid-19 are unlikely to reopen at the start of the school year, Governor Gavin Newsom said at a press conference on Friday.

Campuses that reopen will have mask requirements for students and teachers, as well as Covid-19 tests and social distancing recommendations for teachers and school staff, according to the California Department of Public Health guidelines Newsom came out on Friday.

Students in public and private schools located in counties on the state watch list because they have had a increase in coronavirus infections will begin the school year with distance education. Schools in these counties should meet strict criteria in order to reopen.

While all 32 counties are still on the watch list at the start of the school year, 5 million students in 685 school districts and 1,131 charter schools will learn at home.

“Public education is absolutely about our children, but we cannot deny the fact that we have hundreds of thousands of adults who are also responsible for caring for and educating our children,” Newsom said. “And their health must also be taken into account. “

Children are much less likely to contract Covid-19 than adults, but the elderly and those with an underlying illness are at risk.

The California Teachers Association pushed back on the idea of ​​reopening schools last week in a letter to Governor, Legislators and Superintendent of Public Education Tony Thurmond. The letter said the union was uncomfortable going back to school in six to eight weeks with the recent spate of infections.

CTA President E. Toby Boyd on Friday praised the new guidelines, saying they provide the clarity and consistency needed statewide, but added that the union was still concerned about some standards that will be used for school closures.

A school would be closed when at least 5% of the student body and staff are diagnosed with Covid-19 within 14 days, according to guidelines from the Department of Public Health. It also says a superintendent should close a school district if a quarter of its schools have been closed due to Covid-19 cases within two weeks.

“There is no one more eager to go back to school with their students than the teachers,” Boyd wrote in a statement. “We miss and want to be with our students, but we are ready to engage with school districts to implement a strong distance learning program that is inclusive for all and equitable in resources and technology.

The guidelines say school districts can open their campuses when the county they are in is not on the watchlist for 14 consecutive days.

It also requires masks for all staff and children in Grade 3 and above indoors, on school buses and in areas where physical distance is not sufficient to prevent disease transmission. Children between 2 years and the second year are “strongly encouraged” to wear masks.

There are exemptions for children who have difficulty breathing or are unfit. Students who refuse to wear a mask will be sent home and remotely schooled.

The guidelines state that staff members may wear a face shield in the classroom under limited circumstances, including when teaching children with special needs. Teachers should be tested at least every two months on a rotating basis and should stay six feet from each other and from students.

The guidelines also offer specific advice on the use of hand sanitizers and hand washing. They recommend that schools ensure sufficient amounts of soap, tissues, non-contact trash cans, face coverings and hand sanitizer.

The mandates mark a shift from leaving decisions to close and reopen schools largely in the hands of local school district officials in consultation with county health departments. The California Department of Public Health will now play a more important role in defining the criteria for reopening schools.

Since this week, many school districts, including the state’s largest district, with enrollments totaling over 1.5 million students, had already decided to open distance education this fall amid concerns over soaring cases of coronavirus.

“We know kids learn best in the classroom,” said Debra Duardo, Los Angeles County School Superintendent. “However, the health and safety of students and school staff must come first. I applaud Governor Newsom for making this everyone’s top priority, while acknowledging that learning is also not negotiable.

Distance education “is not ideal” and “will not be easy,” Duardo said. “Far too many of our young people were already dealing with the negative effects of trauma, which were only compounded by school closures and social distancing.”

Newsom spoke of offering rigorous distance learning next school year, stressing that teachers should have daily live interaction with students and students with their peers. Schools should create a stimulating environment where online homework is equivalent to classroom instruction, he said.

“The state must provide meaningful instruction on this pandemic,” Newsom said, adding “only if it can be done safely.”

Superintendent Thurmond said the guidelines set out parameters for district officials to better understand the conditions that would determine school closures.

“I want to commend the governor for his leadership and for his attention to putting public safety first during what could be one of the most difficult experiences we will face in our lives,” said Thurmond . “I appreciate the concern he expressed today as a father, his concern for the safety of California’s 6 million students, and his concern for the health and well-being of educators and families across the country. our schools. “

“I would also like to thank the Governor for the work he has done to ensure that our educators have the necessary personal protective equipment – already en route to our 10,000 schools – in the form of millions of face covering units. , face shields, hand sanitizer. and thermometers, ”he said.

On Monday, the California Department of Education will host a meeting for officials from the state’s approximately 1,000 school districts to review the guidelines. Officials from the California Department of Public Health will present the guidance and answer questions from educators statewide.

Will Swaim, president of the libertarian nonprofit California Policy Center, expressed a dissenting point of view. Swaim moderated the 11-person panel in Orange County whose report, adopted by the Orange County Board of Education, called for the school to open this fall without requiring masks or social distancing.

Newsom’s plan is “unscientific, impractical and unreasonable,” he wrote in an email. Newsom “says he will lock out students across an entire county based on the number of peak cases in just one part of that county – and regardless of the fact that the disease rarely strikes young people.” This mad policy will open schools for a day or two and close them again for two weeks, opening and closing them again in an endless and chaotic cycle. “

But Swaim also acknowledged that it was “a difficult time to be a governor. There are no perfect solutions, and all of us who offer something know there is a trade-off.

EdSource reporter John Fensterwald contributed to this report.

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