Facing New School Year, Officials Ponder Waiver Process For Elementary Schools

In a July 24 news conference, Gov. Newsom discussed the reasoning behind the waivers for elementary schools. (Screenshot via Facebook)

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There is a way that elementary schools could reopen in the fall, even if they're in counties on the state's COVID-19 watchlist.

The footnotes of the school reopening criteria released by California's Department of Public Health mention a waiver for reopening elementary schools that districts, charters, and private school leaders could request through their county health office.

Here's what it says, in full:

A waiver of this criteria may be granted by the local health officer for elementary schools to open for in-person instruction. A waiver may only be granted if one is requested by the superintendent (or equivalent for charter or private schools), in consultation with labor, parent and community organizations. Local health officers must review local community epidemiological data, consider other public health interventions, and consult with CDPH when considering a waiver request.

Why only elementary schools? California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly addressed that during a news conference earlier this week.

"From what we know about development and the ability to stay focused and stay concentrated, [distance learning] is challenging for our youngest students, preschoolers, kindergarteners, even up through third grade," he said.

"It's for that reason the governor created an opportunity for elementary schools to get back to on-campus, in-person learning sooner," Ghaly said.

We looked at how the waiver process will work in Orange and Los Angeles counties.


We will continue to report on these waivers, and which schools do — and don't — obtain one. If your school or district is considering applying for one of these waivers, please reach out to Carla Javier.


WHAT'S HAPPENING IN ORANGE COUNTY?

Orange County has been a battleground in the debate over how and when to reopen schools.

Earlier this month, the county Board of Education recommended welcoming students back on campus in the fall without strict requirements for physical distancing or masks, contradicting the county Department of Education's detailed guidance, which does call for face coverings and distancing.

Because Orange County is currently on the state's watchlist, its public and private schools are required to begin the school year with distance learning until the county gets off the list for at least two weeks — unless their district or school leadership obtain a waiver from the health officer.

"So far, we've primarily heard from Orange County private schools interested in applying for the waiver," a spokesperson for the Orange County Health Care Agency told us.

One of those schools is TVT Community Day School in Irvine.

"I believe at the heart of the waiver is that the county and the state are looking for schools who are implementing protocols based on science, based on proven research that can keep the students and faculties safe," said Head of School Jeff Davis. "I challenge anybody to find a school that has done more work in this area than TVT Community Day School."

His school developed a 20-page safety plan. Executing it involved hiring more health staff, setting up satellite classrooms, and identifying isolation rooms.

"It's cost quite a bit of money, a boatload there," Davis said.

Orange County has yet to release the specifics of its waiver application process, even though many districts and schools are scheduled to start school next month.

In a Thursday press conference, Clayton Chau, the acting Orange County health officer, said the county will break down coronavirus cases more specifically by age group (0-3, 4-9, 10-14, and 15-18 years old) and by zip code and city, to help schools, parents, and staff make decisions about going back to school.

"This reopening cannot be just one-size-fits-all, because we don't live in the same community, even in Orange County," Chau explained. "There are cities, and zip codes, that are much harder hit than other zip codes and cities."

The county is "waiting on the state to finalize their application template so we know what fields they will be looking at and taking into consideration," a Health Care Agency spokesperson said in a statement.

Davis said he has already sent a letter to Chau, the acting health officer, and will fill out an application as soon as it becomes available, too.

He wasn't sure how the pandemic — and the resulting concerns about safety and the economic challenges — would affect his school's enrollment.

"In the beginning, I thought we were going to take a substantial hit," Davis said. "But it's turned out to be just the opposite. Families were so impressed with our distance learning program and how effective it was, word of mouth spread."

He now expects to start the new school year with more students than the school had when it closed last year.

And Davis hopes to get a waiver to welcome them in person and on campus on Aug. 24.

The county's largest public school districts — like Capistrano Unified, Santa Ana Unified, Garden Grove Unified, and Irvine Unified — all announced that they will begin the next school year with distance learning.

WHAT ABOUT LOS ANGELES COUNTY?

L.A. County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a Wednesday news conference that the department will accept applications for waivers from TK-6 schools, and that the process will open up at the end of this week, or early next week.

She promised that once the department starts accepting requests for waivers, that the materials, metrics for consideration, and results will be posted publicly.

"As a former high school principal, a parent and a grandparent myself, I am aware of the stress and anxiety that so many people are feeling," Ferrer said. "We're going to do our best to use the available data and the science to ensure that the health and well being, both physical and emotional of all children, teachers, school staff, and all of their families remains the top priority."

According to emailed statements from the L.A. County Department of Public Health, to be considered for a waiver, district administrators (or school leaders in the case of private and charter schools) will have to provide the department with a letter formally requesting a waiver. They'll also have to complete the Los Angeles County Public Health K-12 School Re-Opening Protocol checklist and explain their plans for managing outbreaks, getting employees tested for COVID-19, and ensuring students in second grade and older keep their mouths and noses covered.

And there's another big hurdle: Interested districts and schools will also have to provide the public health department with letters of support from labor partners, parent organizations, and community organizations.

This part of the process worries Palos Verdes Peninsula Superintendent Alex Cherniss.

"To require a letter of support from parent organizations and labor unions seems outside of the scope of their responsibility and veers off from science to politics," Cherniss wrote in a statement. "It would not only pit parents, teachers and school districts against each other, but it would also create an unfair ability for private schools, who do not operate with labor and/or parent organizations to circumvent these requirements and thus have their waivers approved."

I asked the public health department about Cherniss' concerns, but have not yet heard back.

After receiving a waiver request, Public Health will consider "the number of cases and number of deaths and changes in case and death rates over the past month within the district" as well as hospital capacity, and will consult with the state department of health.

Many of Los Angeles County's districts — including its two largest, L.A. Unified and Long Beach Unified — have already announced that their schools will begin classes remotely in August.

We will continue to report on these waivers, and which districts and schools do — and don't — obtain one. If your school or district is considering applying for one of these waivers, please reach out to reporter Carla Javier.

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