Here's How LA County Schools Can Be Considered For A Coveted Reopening Waiver

Schools and districts, like L.A. Unified, plan to modify classroom arrangements to account for more physical distancing when schools are allowed to reopen. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is officially accepting applications from schools interested in reopening campuses to teach transitional kindergarteners through second graders in person.

There are some important caveats for those seeking a waiver from the rules that prevent schools from holding in-person classes: only 30 schools will be granted waivers in any week, and the county will try to serve the students with the most needs first.

Public health officials are supposed to prioritize applications from schools with more low-income students, measured by the percentage of students who are eligible for free and reduced price meals.

Why does this matter?

When neighboring Orange County implemented the waiver program in August and September, most of the schools that applied got waivers; with the notable exception of Los Alamitos Unified, only private schools reopened early.

Study after study has shown certain groups — including low-income students — struggled when schools shifted to distance learning to slow the spread of COVID-19.

"We're hoping that if we work in close partnership with the entire school community, we can be successful in reopening schools for our youngest students and our students of highest need without significantly increasing community transmission of COVID-19," Department of Public Health director Barbara Ferrer said.

Now let's walk through the application to see how that will work out in practice.

(Screenshot of LA Public Health Media Availability)

WHAT DOES THE APPLICATION LOOK LIKE?

Here is the application process, as shared by the Department of Public Health. While similar to other counties' processes, there are some differences unique to L.A. County.

For one thing, schools in L.A. County will have to tell public health officials in their applications what percentage of their students qualify for free and reduced price meals. From there, according to Ferrer, the applicants will be "ranked" to give preference to schools with higher percentages of those low-income students and to ensure waivers are granted as evenly as possible across the county's five supervisorial districts.

Another difference: L.A. County waiver applicants will have to provide letters of support from staff and parents. The state's waiver requirements don't necessarily require explicit support from these groups — just "consultation" with them.

Critics of the county's approach have said this requirement might make it harder for district schools with unionized workforces to apply than private schools without them, though Ferrer did say schools with non-unionized staff will have to provide letters of support "signed by the majority of teachers and staff."

Schools will also have to complete the department's Reopening Protocols for K-12 checklist and other attestations to, as Ferrer put it, "demonstrate that they're able to be in compliance with all of the infection protocols that we require of schools that bring students back for in-person instruction."

Applicants will have to post a completed copy of the checklist on the school's or district's website.

It could take two to three weeks to review an application, and schools have to wait for approval from county and state public health officials before welcoming their TK-2 students and staff back to campus, Ferrer said.

"If we do this well, even if there's a higher rate of transmission in some of our neighborhoods, we shouldn't see that translate to a lot of spread in our schools," she said. "That's why the students are cohorted to prevent this from becoming a schoolwide outbreak, and that's why infection control and distancing requirements are really stringent in schools."

WHO'S MAKING SURE THAT THE SCHOOLS THAT DO REOPEN DO SO SAFELY?

Every school that reopens will be visited at least once, according to a County Department of Public Health spokesperson.

That's quite different from Orange County. When select O.C. schools were first reopening with waivers in September — even before all schools got blanket permission later in the month — the county Health Care Agency did not conduct site visits to ensure compliance.

"We're just here for support," then-Deputy Agency Director for Public Health Services Margaret Bredehoft told reporters last month. "It is probably incumbent upon the schools to be able to adhere to that."

But in L.A. County, public health officials will be required to provide biweekly updates on applications and compliance to the Board of Supervisors.

And L.A. schools that violate the health order protocol — including mask and distancing requirements — could be cited, fined, or even closed, according to a Public Health spokesperson.

The Department of Public Health also promised to map cases and outbreaks, if they happen, at schools.

We mapped schools across the Southern California counties we cover that have applied for and obtained these waivers. You can click on a school below to learn more about its application.

READ MORE OF OUR COVERAGE OF THE REOPENING OF SCHOOLS:

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