Who's Applying For School Reopening Waivers in Southern California?

(Screenshot of LAUSD video)

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It's back-to-school season, though what that looks like depends on where a student lives.

For the many students at schools in counties on the state's COVID-19 watchlist, classes are required to be online for now. That's the result of a July 17 announcement from Governor Gavin Newsom.

But in that announcement, there was a small footnote that could allow some elementary schools to reopen. Here it is 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.

It described a process where elementary schools with safety plans can apply for waivers to reopen their campuses, even if their county is still on the state's COVID-19 watchlist.

On August 28, the state got rid of the watchlist, and replaced it with a tiered system. Schools in the purple ("Widespread") tier can't reopen their campuses for in-person instruction without a waiver. Once a county moves to the red tier ("Substantial") and remains there for two weeks, schools can welcome students back in-person - if they follow the state's school reopening guidance.

Long story short: the waivers only apply to approved elementary schools, in part because the state believes distance learning is especially challenging for young learners. The district — or school leadership in the case of charter and private schools — has to get approval from the local health officer. And the local health officer has to consult with the California Department of Public Health as part of the process.

A few weeks later, the California Department of Public Health laid out how that would work. And it added a big caveat:

CDPH recommends that schools within jurisdictions with 14-day case rates more than two times the threshold to be on the County Monitoring List (>200 cases/100,000 population) should not be considered for a waiver to re-open in-person instruction.

So, given all of this, which schools and districts are actually applying for these waivers in Southern California?

Los Angeles County is not currently considering waiver applications, citing new guidance welcoming small "cohorts" of students - like students with special needs, english language learners, and vulnerable youth - back to campus, while in Orange County, the Health Care Agency had received more than 130 applications from private, independent, or faith-based schools and one public school district — Los Alamitos Unified — as of September 1.

The Los Alamitos waiver application was approved by the county and state, and the district told parents in an email that it will open its six elementary schools for hybrid learning starting on Sept. 8.

We made a map of applicants we know about through public records requests and individual tips from readers and listeners. If you click on a school, you can learn more about what type of school it is and the documents it submitted for consideration.

Below that — we look at each individual county's process and plan for considering the waivers.

If you know of a school or district that has applied that we do not yet have marked on this map, please let us know.

We'll continue to update this post and the maps as we learn more about the waiver process. If you have information you'd like to share with us, you can email reporter Carla Javier.

ORANGE COUNTY

During an August 10 press conference, Newsom said because of its size and diversity, Orange County was a "perfect poster child for exactly the kind of nuance that needs to be considered as it relates to ... waiver strategy."

Initially, Acting Health Officer Chau told reporters he was accepting applications, but not approving them due a past glitch with the state's data reporting system.

The county did end up approving the waivers starting on Aug. 18.

The map above reflects the applications received by the Health Care Agency as of September 1. Dark green markers indicate schools that have been approved by both county and state public health officials. As part of the process for applying for a waiver in Orange County, the local education agency applying must post its own copy of its waiver application on its website. So if you go to the map above and click on an Orange County school, you can learn more about each school and read completed waiver applications and safety plans.

As we noted above, more than 100 of the applicants interested in waivers from the Orange County Health Care Agency are private, independent, or faith-based schools.

So far, Los Alamitos Unified is the only public school district approved by both Orange County and state for a waiver. According to the superintendent, the district's six elementary schools will open for hybrid learning — meaning interested students will spend some time learning in-person, and the rest online — on Sept. 8.

Though, according to the message from Los Alamitos Unified Superintendent Andrew Pulver, the waiver did not apply to special day classes for students with special needs at the district's elementary schools.

A week later, the California Department of Public health released guidance for welcoming small cohorts of students back on campus. That guidance encouraged schools to prioritize students who struggled during distance learning, including students with special needs, students learning English, and vulnerable youth who may be homeless or in the foster system.

As of September 1, the county has not received waiver applications from any other public school districts.

Before the state switched to the tiered system, Orange County had moved off of the state's COVID-19 watchlist.

According to the Health Care Agency, the county is "on track" to move to the red ("Substantial") tier on September 8. If the county can remain in that tier without moving back to purple for two consecutive weeks, all schools and grades - not just TK-6 schools with approved waivers - would be permitted to reopen for in-person instruction.

LOS ANGELES COUNTY

On August 4, the L.A. County Department of Public Health announced it will not grant reopening waivers until the county case rate is below the threshold set by the state Department of Public Health (200 cases per 100,000 residents).

A week later, Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer was asked when she believes the county will meet that requirement.

"I would be hopeful that we work really hard, everybody does their part, and we get closer to October and the rate has really come down, but I don't have a crystal ball," Ferrer said. "I can just look at what's happened in other places across our country and across the world, and suggest that with a really concerted effort that rate has come down and come down significantly. I think we can do that here."

But Los Angeles County's case rate actually got below that threshold much earlier, on August 25, according to the state's Department of Public Health's county data table.

After the tiered system was introduced at the state level in late August, Los Angeles County Health Officer Muntu Davis acknowledged that the waiver process and the guidance for bringing small groups of students back to campus are possible options, but "all that again will be discussed with our board as we think about where we are with cases and what we will need to do moving forward."

On Sept. 2, county public health officials announced that schools will be allowed to welcome back small groups of students - like students with special needs, students who struggled with distance learning, and vulnerable youth - beginning on Monday, September 14, but that the general waiver application process to reopen entire elementary schools will not begin until the county can "monitor the implication of this of the implementation of this effort to safely get students needing specialized in school services back at school."

RIVERSIDE COUNTY

In an Aug. 5 memo to public and private school leaders, Riverside County Public Health Officer Cameron Kaiser pointed to the ongoing issues with the state's reporting system that left the county's case rate "frozen" just above the state's threshold for considering these waivers, at 202 per 100,000 residents.

Since then, the case rate has dropped and the county started accepting waiver applications on Aug. 24.

"Although we're still finding new cases of COVID-19, our case rate has dropped enough where we can consider elementary school waivers," Kaiser wrote in a press release. "However, the waiver process won't be a rubber stamp, and elementary schools will be required to publicly demonstrate they have the pieces in place to operate safely or they won't be approved."

The new application for consideration emphasizes that if the county's case rate is higher than 200 cases per 100,000, then the county will not consider applications until that case rate drops to below that threshold.

Riverside County's application also asks applicants specific questions about plans for testing staff, and what the school would do if a staff member or student tested positive for COVID-19. It also asks for details about how students will be grouped into small cohorts.

According to data from the state, five schools in Riverside county have had their waivers approved by county and state health officials, as of Sept. 1.

SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY

In a packet dated August 4, San Bernardino County Interim Health Officer Erin Gustafson explained the process the county will use to consider waiver applications.

So far, Lucerne Valley Unified School District is the only public school district to have its waiver request approved in San Bernardino County.

According to the California Department of Public Health, at least eight schools in the county had their waiver requests denied.

VENTURA COUNTY

The Ventura County Public Health began accepting waiver applications on Aug. 19.

"This was a difficult decision. I recognize there are reasons not to open our Health Department to requests for waivers, but we got to the point where I feel the benefits outweigh the risks," Ventura County Public Health Officer Robert Levin wrote in a statement. "Research shows that our youngest children derive significant benefits from in-person interaction with their teachers and with one another in the school setting."

Levin emphasized that the waivers will "not be a done deal" and that all schools will be expected to meet the county's framework for reopening schools, including physical distancing, face coverings, and testing plans and protocols.

As of Sept. 1, two Ventura County private schools have had their waivers approved, state data shows.

UPDATE, Aug. 14, 2020: This post and map have been updated to reflect news that the Los Alamitos Unified school district has applied for a waiver.

UPDATE, Aug. 18, 2020: This post has been updated to explain that 12 private schools in San Bernardino County have applied for a waiver.

UPDATE, Aug. 19, 2020: This post has been updated with the names of the San Bernardino schools that applied for a waiver, and to reflect that Lucerne Valley Unified was granted a waiver.

UPDATE, Aug. 24, 2020: This post and map have been updated with waiver application details from Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura County public health officials. It also was updated to reflect that Orange County moved off of the state's COVID-19 watchlist.

UPDATE, Aug. 27, 2020: This story has been updated with new comments from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health on the county's case rate and the waiver process.

UPDATE, Sept. 2, 2020: This story has been updated with waiver approvals and denials as reported by the California Department of Public Health, and to reflect the state's new tiered system.

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