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SoCal Students Are Headed Back To School. What COVID-19 Rules Will They Have To Follow?

An image of transitional kindergarten teacher Heidi Ardin speaking with one of her students at Harding Elementary in Sylmar at his desk. The student is doing an arts and craft activity in the classroom.
Transitional kindergarten teacher Heidi Ardin speaks with one of her students at Harding Elementary in Sylmar on April 13, 2021, the first day of L.A. Unified School District's transition to "hybrid" instruction since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Kyle Stokes
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Last school year, Southern California public schools’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic were all over the map.

Los Angeles Unified was among the most cautious major urban school districts in the nation, waiting until April to reopen campuses — and even then, under restrictions that led many families to stick with online classes. In Santa Ana and San Bernardino, campuses remained closed all year.

Meanwhile, school districts like Irvine Unified and Los Alamitos Unified offered students the option to attend on-campus classes for almost all of last school year.

But now, as a new year begins, every Southern California public school district is preparing for the same thing: a full year of on-campus classes, five days a week, for every student who wants to attend in person.

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That’s because ahead of the coming school year, state lawmakers and public health officials have laid down some new, overarching rules that all in-person schools — public and private — will have to follow.

On Wednesday morning, Gov. Gavin Newsom handed down another: He announced all school employees will have to prove they’re vaccinated for COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing.

But new rules for the upcoming school year don’t stop there. Let’s walk through a few of the big ones — and glance at how different districts and counties are planning to handle them.

A child in a navy blue jacket and a royal blue mask plays with colorful blocks.
A student plays with blocks at a table in an L.A. Unified School District early education center.
(Mariana Dale
LAist )


What The State's Rules Say

Students must wear masks when indoors on a K-12 school campus or a school bus, the California Department of Public Health has ordered. Outdoors, masks are optional — not just on the playground, but in classes held outdoors as well.

What happens if a student refuses to wear one? State health officials walked back a mandate that schools “must exclude” maskless students from classes. Instead, the state rules now require school officials to come up with their own policy to enforce the mask-wearing rules.

Students with medical conditions can obtain a doctor’s permission to instead wear a “face shield with a drape” or some other less-restrictive alternative.

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How Local Schools Are Handling The Mandate

L.A. Unified is going a step further than the state guidance, requiring masks everywhere on campus, including outdoors. L.A. County’s Department of Public Health has also clarified that the rules apply to indoor drama, dance and music classes.

Some parents, and even district leaders, have chafed at the mandate.

In Orange County, the school boards for Saddleback Valley Unified and Capistrano Unified have approved resolutions calling for the state to drop indoor mask requirements. One Los Alamitos board member suggested state officials should allow districts to decide for themselves, in the spirit of “local control.”

The state’s ambiguity around enforcement has emboldened parents who oppose mask use. They hope local school districts will choose not to enforce the new rules (as leaders of some rural districts have told the L.A. Times and CalMatters).

But OC officials have warned districts against trying to skirt the mandate through lax enforcement.

“All Orange County schools must follow the regulations,” read a joint statement from Orange County Public Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau and the county’s schools superintendent, Al Mijares.

“Students who do not comply with universal mask wearing guidance,” the county officials wrote, “may be placed in an alternative learning setting.” (In many districts, that means distance learning.)

 A sign posted at LAUSD's Euclid Avenue Elementary encourages students and staff to practice social distancing. In the upcoming school year, officials say students and staff will maintain distance whenever possible — but state and county guidelines no longer mandate hard-and-fast social distancing rules.
A sign posted at LAUSD's Euclid Avenue Elementary encourages students and staff to practice social distancing. In the upcoming school year, officials say students and staff will maintain distance whenever possible — but state and county guidelines no longer mandate hard-and-fast social distancing rules.
(Kyle Stokes

Social Distancing

What The State's Rules Say

Last year, many schools became accustomed to enforcing the “six-foot rule,” the minimum distance that all staff and students were supposed to keep apart from one another under federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and a California Department of Health mandate.

The rule made it practically impossible for schools to offer full-time, on-campus instruction to all students at once. Most classrooms weren’t large enough to hold the normal number of students without violating the six-foot requirement.

Now, California health officials no longer impose a hard-and-fast “rule” for social distancing — especially when it could jeopardize students’ full-time attendance of in-person classes.

“Recent evidence indicates that in-person instruction can occur safely without minimum physical distancing requirements,” the state’s guidance to schools reads, “when other mitigation strategies (e.g., masking) are fully implemented.”

During on-campus meal times, the rules do continue to emphasize the need to maintain distance “as much as possible,” especially when eating indoors: “Arrange for eating outdoors as much as feasible.”

How Local Officials Are Talking About The New Guidelines

While acknowledging that social distancing is no longer required, L.A. County Department of Public Health officials are urging schools not to give up the restrictions entirely — so long as they “will not interfere with the full-time attendance of all enrolled students.”

L.A. County guidance urges schools to continue marking out distances on the floor, encouraging students to keep apart in lunch lines and locker rooms, and patrolling hallways during passing times to prevent students from gathering too close.

During music classes, L.A. County officials also “strongly recommend” imposing additional distancing measures because singing launches more respiratory droplets into the air. County officials also make similar recommendations about theater and dance classes.

 A student places a nasal swab from a COVID-19 test into a tube at an L.A. Unified School District screening site at San Fernando Middle School in March 2021.
A student places a nasal swab from a COVID-19 test into a tube at an L.A. Unified School District screening site at San Fernando Middle School in March 2021.
(Kyle Stokes

If You Or A Classmate Gets Sick…

What The State's Rules Say

Let’s say you’re a student and you develop COVID-19 symptoms: the state’s Department of Public Health recommends you should stay home until 10 days after the symptoms begin, and only return to the classroom 24 hours after fever subsides.

Now, let’s say someone else in your class gets a confirmed case of COVID-19. Let’s say you’ve spent more than 15 minutes within six feet of that positive case. Will you have to quarantine?

Are you vaccinated? If so, then you do not have to stay home from school, unless you develop symptoms.

But are you — like the majority of students in California K-12 schools right now — unvaccinated? If so, what happens next depends on the county in which you live.

How Implementation May Vary, District-To-District

Let’s start with an easy scenario: you’re an unvaccinated student, and either you or the person who’s tested positive were unmasked at the time you were in close contact. In that situation, you’ll have to stay home from school for 10 days, or 7 days if you test negative.

But let’s say both you and the positive case were both wearing a mask at the time, and you’re asymptomatic.

In that case, state health officials say you don’t have to skip school altogether. State guidance allows students to undergo a “modified quarantine,” during which students will have to remain masked and sit out of after-school activities for 10 days.

But schools in L.A. County will not be allowed to implement these modified quarantines. The L.A. County Department of Public Health confirmed in a statement to LAist that their orders are more restrictive than the state’s rules.

“The evidence supporting the safety of the modified quarantine in school,” a department spokesperson said in an email, “was collected prior to the emergence of the delta variant…which is much more contagious compared to previous variants.”

“In addition,” the county spokesperson continued, “it can be difficult to accurately track if cases and contacts were all fully masked during all periods of exposure throughout a school day.”

A student sits in front of a laptop for a distance learning lesson.
A San Bernardino City Unified School District student sits in front of a laptop for a distance learning lesson.
(Courtesy of the San Bernardino City Unified School District)

Opting Out Of In-Person Classes

What The State's Rules Say

The word of the year in 2020 was “distance learning.” This year, the word is “independent study.”

While California lawmakers decided in-person instruction must be the default mode in schools this year, they also passed a statute requiring districts to provide independent study programs for students “whose health would be put at risk by in-person instruction.”

Under state law, these programs would have to provide at least weekly, if not daily, live lessons for all students.

Students in transitional kindergarten through third grade should expect “synchronous” lessons with their teachers each day in independent study. For students in fourth through eighth grade, the law requires daily “live interaction” with these students, but only once-weekly synchronous lessons. For high schoolers, state law only requires one weekly live lesson.

How Some Districts Are Handling Independent Study

The L.A. Unified School District is funneling all students opting out of in-person learning into the district’s longstanding independent study program, City of Angels.

Students who sign up for the program will not be taught by teachers from their home school — and there are other limitations when compared to the in-person program.

Though state law requires the state to accommodate transfers back to campuses within five days, LAUSD is urging students to commit to a full semester of independent study. The curriculum being taught on campus might not line up with what they’re learning online, which the district says would make any transition hard on the student.

As of Aug. 8, the parents of around 12,000 students had expressed interest in the online option, equivalent to just under 3% of LAUSD’s total enrollment. The deadline for interested families to sign up was Aug. 6.

In the San Bernardino City Unified School District, students can choose between virtual classes and a more “traditional,” textbook-based independent study program with some digital components. With this more traditional program, students have the option to meet with a teacher in-person once a week.

Assistant superintendent Sandra Rodriguez noted that the district’s middle- and high school independent study options can’t offer all the same specialized programs found on campus, but “that’s something our families have had to come to grips with.”

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).

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