LA County Health Officials Won't Grant School Reopening Waivers Until COVID Rate Drops

An empty classroom at El Sereno Middle School. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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Los Angeles County health officials announced on Tuesday that they will not consider requests for waivers to reopen elementary schools until the coronavirus case rate falls.

State education officials issued requirements on Monday for applying for the waivers under a plan rolled out more than two weeks ago by Governor Gavin Newsom. Counties on the state's COVID-19 watchlist are required to do distance learning unless the county is no longer on the watchlist for at least two weeks, or they obtain a reopening waiver that allows campuses to reopen.

But with coronavirus cases still high, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health announced that it will not consider any waiver requests right now.

"This decision will be reconsidered once the case rate falls to the levels recommended by the State," the county department of public health said in a press release.

Health officials said the decision was based on the state's recommendation that counties with coronavirus rates at or above 200 cases per 100,000 residents do not accept any waiver applications. Los Angeles County's case rate currently is 355 per 100,000, according to the health department. The department wrote:

"We know that to many families, this is a disappointing announcement, but it's based on the existing science and data that is guiding all of our decision-making. We need to ensure the health and safety of our children, school teachers and staff and all of their families."

Case rates in San Bernardino and Riverside counties are also above the state guidelines. But health officials in Orange County said the current case rate there is 149.5 per 100,000 residents. The waiver application process remains open for Orange County schools and officials have posted an application form.

According to the Orange County Health Care Agency, most of the more than 50 schools who have reached out with early interest in the waivers were private schools. (We spoke with the head of one of those schools recently.)

And many of the county's largest public school districts— including Capistrano Unified, Santa Ana Unified, and Garden Grove Unified — have already anno unced they will begin next school year with online learning.

HOW THE WAIVERS WORK

Reopening waivers are only available for grades TK-6. As California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly explained, that is because distance learning has been particularly challenging for young learners.

"Based on the current best available scientific evidence," the California Department of Public Health says in its waiver documentation, "COVID-related risks in schools serving elementary-age students (grades TK-6) are lower than and different from the risks to staff and to students in schools serving older students."

Now, let's follow an application through the process, as laid out by the state.

First off: the superintendent (for district schools), executive director (for charter schools) or principal (for private schools) has to make the request for a waiver.

The individual requesting the waiver will fill out a version of the form below, which asks for:

  • The date of the proposed reopening
  • If and when the applicant consulted with labor unions or staff, parent organizations, and other community organizations
  • What the school's reopening plans are, including:
    • how they plan to keep things clean
    • maintain physical distancing
    • create small cohorts that stay together
    • ensure everyone who can wear face coverings does wear face coverings
    • and screen and test staff for COVID-19, among other measures.

CDPH's sample letter says applicants will also have to attach evidence of the "consultation" with labor partners, parents, and community organizations, as well as a published copy of its reopening plans, and submit it all to the local health officer.

The decision of whether or not a waiver is granted is up to the local health officer, who must consult with the state Department of Public Health via another form.

Here's what that form says about health and safety, epidemiological date, hospital capacity, and testing:

If the school or district is in a county where the 14-day case rate is "more than two times the threshold to be on the County Monitoring List (>200 cases/100,000 population)," then the state Department of Public Health recommends schools in that county should not be considered for a waiver.

You can check the current status of counties on the state's COVID-19 monitoring list here.

Local health officers can grant waivers with conditions, like only allowing a certain number of schools to reopen, or permitting schools to open in phases.

If and when a school campus does reopen for in-person instruction — whether it's because the county where it's located has been off the state COVID-19 watch list for at least two weeks or because it's been granted a waiver — there are still pretty specific guidelines to follow, including physical distancing and face masks, among other safety and health measures.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Fall is fast approaching, and many of Southern California's largest public school districts have already publicly announced their plans to begin the new school year in August with distance learning, including L.A. Unified, Long Beach Unified, and the San Bernardino City Unified School District.

But there are critics of keeping campuses closed until the county where the school is located is off the COVID-19 watch list for two weeks.

The Orange County Board of Education voted last week to pursue litigation over the state directive. A spokesperson for the law firm Tyler & Bursch, which is representing the county board, said they hope to file the lawsuit this week.

And that's not the only local lawsuit challenging the directive.

Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified Board of Education member and parent of two teens Matthew Brach was called out at a recent board meeting because he is one of several plaintiffs in another case against the governor.

This is an ongoing story and situation. We will update this story as we learn more. If you have relevant information to share, please email reporter Carla Javier.

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