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What Does Purple Tier Mean For Southern California Schools?

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A student at Lee Elementary School in Los Alamitos enters school on the first day of hybrid classes. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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Governor Gavin Newsom announced on Monday that all of Southern California is back in in the state’s most restrictive – or “purple” – coronavirus tier starting today. So what does that mean for schools?

A quick recap: when a county is in the purple tier, that indicates that there is “widespread” risk of spreading the coronavirus.

When counties are in this tier, they are generally not allowed to reopen K-12 schools. For example, L.A. County has been in purple since the tier system was released, so there haven’t been any widespread campus reopenings.

There are two exceptions to this: while in purple, counties can decide to allow for small groups of students who need in-person learning the most – like students with special needs or students who are learning English, or their public health officials can consider waivers to reopen elementary schools.

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Once a county makes it to the red tier – which indicates “substantial” risk, but is less restrictive than purple – and remains there for two weeks, K-12 schools have permission to reopen when they are ready to.

But what happens now to schools – like those in Orange County and Ventura County – that had reopened some schools under the red tier but have now been moved back to the purple tier?

Let’s look at how each county is interpreting the next steps.

ORANGE COUNTY

At the end of September, Orange County had been in the red tier long enough that schools were allowed to reopen whenever they were ready to.

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But now, with the move backwards to the most restrictive purple tier, Orange County schools that had already reopened while in the red tier or with a waiver can remain open, according to a press release issued Monday, schools that have not yet reopened have to stay online.

But there are some schools in the middle, that had planned gradual reopenings for a few grade levels at a time. The county Health Care Agency is handling those case by case.

We asked the Orange County Health Care Agency if it will still accept applications for waivers – like it did over the summer – and we will update this story if we hear back.

VENTURA COUNTY

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Ventura County had moved to the red tier on October 6. Ventura County Public Health had stopped accepting applications for school reopening waivers, as they were unnecessary after the county remained in the red tier for two weeks.

But now, Ventura County is one of the 28 counties across the state moving back to the most restrictive purple tier.

They, too, are adhering to the state’s exception: schools that had already reopened their campuses while the county was in the red tier – or with an approved waiver – can remain open.

Schools that hadn’t reopened yet have to continue with distance learning until the county makes it back to the red tier and stays there for two weeks, though elementary schools can still apply for a reopening waiver in the meantime, according to a county press release.

As for schools that were part way through a gradual reopening while in the red tier, the county says this:

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… the school site may continue their phased re-opening. This is only applicable to individual school sites. If a district has a phased reopening of their schools, the schools in that district that did not open for in-person instruction may not reopen until Ventura County has returned to Red Tier 2 for two weeks.

LOS ANGELES COUNTY

L.A. County was already in the purple tier – and has been since the tier system was released.

While the case numbers surge in Los Angeles County, Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told reporters Monday “we are not rolling back efforts to get students back into schools through either the waiver program or the program that allows all schools to offer cohorted services or one-on one-services to students with high needs. That program is working really well.”

In his weekly video address on Monday, L.A. Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner said the county needs to do more to prioritize reopening schools.

“Eight months into a pandemic that’s likely to stretch well into next year, our priorities are misplaced when malls receive more focus than the public schools that provide children with the foundation of literacy, math and critical thinking skills they need to succeed in school and in life,” he said.

“Without significant changes in priorities and a greater focus on public education, it’s unlikely that schools in Los Angeles will reopen for in-person instruction any time soon.”

RIVERSIDE COUNTY

Riverside County had previously been in the red tier, but was moved back to purple in late October.

According to a county press release, schools that had reopened while in red or with a waiver can remain open, while elementary schools that hadn’t yet opened their campuses need to seek a waiver before reopening.

SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY

San Bernardino County was already in the purple tier, and continues to accept and vet applications for reopening waivers from elementary schools. As in L.A. County, schools can not fully reopen until the county is moved to a less restrictive tier.

READ MORE OF OUR COVERAGE OF THE REOPENING OF SCHOOLS:

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