Under Newsom's Order, There's No Telling How Long K-12 Campuses In Southern California Will Stay Shut
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Gov. Gavin Newsom issued new rules on Friday that could force K-12 school campuses across much of California -- including all of the greater Los Angeles region -- to remain closed until their counties see declining rates of coronavirus cases.
Schools must offer "distance learning only" until COVID-19 metrics improve and the county has been off the watchlist for at least 14 days, the state rules say.
Most of the state's counties -- including Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties, plus the Inland Empire -- are currently on that monitoring list. Basically, unless conditions improve in Southern California in the next two to three weeks, any plan to start a new school year with in-person instruction might have to be set aside.
"We all prefer in-classroom instruction for all the obvious reasons," Newsom said in a virtual press briefing, "but only if it can be done safely. As a parent, I believe that, and as someone who has the responsibility to support the education of six-plus million kids in California, and have the backs of [school] staff."
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Three of the state's four largest school systems -- L.A. Unified, San Diego and Long Beach Unified -- have already said they won't reopen campuses for the foreseeable future.
But a few of Southern California's largest school districts -- including Irvine and Capistrano Unified-- had hoped to provide parents the option of sending students back to campuses, at least part-time. Both districts have since announced that they will follow the guidance and start the school year online.
"We understand that many CUSD families prefer to return to school," Capistrano Unified Superintendent Kirsten Vital wrote in a letter to district families, "and when the Governor lifts the order, the plans we have developed over the last three months will allow us to quickly adapt to reopening our classrooms and campuses."
The governor's move also comes as some local officials push to reopen schools with fewer restrictions. Orange County's Board of Education recently approved a non-binding set of school-reopening guidance that casts doubt on the value of masks and social distancing.
In Orange County, one resident who was critical of the county Board of Education's push to write relaxed reopening guidelines said she appreciated the clarity Newsom's order brings. Rather than a district-by-district patchwork of reopening plans, Newsom's order will offer some uniformity.
"I think it does make sense to have a centralized strategy," said Lyn Stoler, who gathered more than 600 signatures on a letter criticizing the O.C. Board of Education.
Stoler had feared the county board's vote would give cover to Orange County districts hoping to reopen schools without precautions, such as masks or social distancing, in place.
Now, she hopes Newsom's order doesn't supercharge the politics around public health orders in schools.
"Especially given how the board of supervisors meetings have gone," said Stoler, "I'm definitely concerned about local enforcement or local pushback."
WHEN AND HOW CAN SCHOOLS REOPEN?
Once a county has been off the watch list for two weeks, the order says districts and schools in that county can consider reopening.
The other way? Apply for a waiver, though that's an option only available to elementary schools.
Either way, once schools do reopen, there are pretty specific guidelines to follow.
All staff and students in third grade or older must wear masks. The state Department of Health also recommends younger students wear masks, too, though it's not technically required for students in second grade or younger.
There are pretty specific guidelines about handwashing and cleaning, too.
The state recommends that all school staff get tested for COVID-19 on a rotating basis every two months.
WHAT IF SOMEONE GETS SICK?
If a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, the guidance says the individual would not be allowed on campus for 10 days. And their close contacts -- including the students in their class, lunch, or recess "cohort" -- would have to quarantine for two weeks too. The guidance requires notifying the school community about the case, but the school wouldn't have to close in this circumstance.
There are a number of scenarios where an individual school would have to close, though, like if 5% of the students and staff had confirmed cases within a two-week period, or if ordered to by local public health authorities.
An entire district would have to shut down again if more than a quarter of its schools close due to COVID-19 within a two-week period.
WHAT ARE COUNTY EDUCATION, CHARTER, AND DISTRICT OFFICIALS SAYING?
Both L.A. County Superintendent Debra Duardo and Orange County Superintendent Al Mijares said they support the state guidance.
"Once everybody is following the orders of wearing a mask -- physical distancing, washing our hands frequently, doing everything that we can as individuals to prevent the spread of this virus -- the sooner we'll be able to open our schools," Duardo said.
Duardo said she recognizes how distance learning impacts parents' ability to work, and said the L.A. County Office of Education is working with county parks and nonprofits to create "learning centers" where students who need the most help getting online and connecting with educators can do so "in small numbers."
WHAT ABOUT ENFORCEMENT?
We've reached out to the Los Angeles County Department Public Health and the governor's office for clarity on enforcement. We'll update if we hear back.
In a statement, the California Federation of Teachers said the guidelines "fall short":
"Schools may still be allowed to physically operate in counties with rising infection rates if granted waivers, insufficient capacity or resources for testing may result in unsafe conditions and fail to prevent further spread, and there is no directive to require effective social distancing and testing for students. Moreover, once re-opened, schools would not be required to close if the COVID-19 cases in the county spiked, causing it to be placed on the monitoring list."
We are continuing to gather reaction to the guidance and schools' reopening plans. If you have a perspective you'd like to share, you can email reporter Carla Javier.
KPCC/LAist K-12 education reporter Kyle Stokes contributed to this report.