Who's Applying For School Reopening Waivers in Southern California?
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We're well into the fall semester, though what that looks like depends on where a student lives.
For the students at schools in counties in the state's most restrictive COVID-19 reopening tier, 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 before all schools can. 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 was 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. Still, similar rules apply. 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?
Initially, Los Angeles County did not consider waiver applications, citing guidance welcoming small "cohorts" of students - like students with special needs, english language learners, and vulnerable youth - back to campus. Meanwhile in Orange County, the Health Care Agency received more than 130 applications from mostly private, independent, or faith-based schools.
We made a map of applicants we know about through public records requests, lists provided by county health authorities, and individual tips from readers and listeners (that we corroborated). 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.
As of September 22, waivers are no longer required to open K-12 schools in Orange County because the county was able to remain in the state's second-most restrictive reopening tier for more than two weeks.
But when waivers were required,, 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, then-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.
Los Alamitos Unified was the only public school district approved by both Orange County and the state for a waiver. It reopened its elementary schools on September 8.
The county's largest school district - Capistrano Unified - applied for but was denied a waiver. In the denial, the county Health Care Agency cited low support from the teachers' union. Teachers, in turn, had expressed concerns about the district's reopening plan.
County Health Officer received confirmation from @CAPublicHealth that #OC is on track to enter into Red Tier on Sept. 8. Providing we meet Red Tier metrics at that time, there will be a 14-day wait for all K-12 schools to be eligible for reopening, which could happen on Sept. 22.— OC Health Care Agency (@ochealth) September 1, 2020
LOS ANGELES COUNTY
The L.A. County Department of Public Health began accepting waiver applications on October 5.
But unlike neighboring counties, L.A. County is only accepting waivers to restart in-person classes for pre-K through second grade students. Third graders and older, for the most part, still have to learn from home.
From our summary of the process (which you can read in full here):
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.
"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.
According to a County Department of Public Health spokesperson, every school that obtains a waiver and reopens will be subject to at least one site visit. Schools that aren't following the county's protocols when reopening can be cited, fined, or even closed.
In late October, LA Public Health modified the process slightly: while schools were initially required by the county to provide letters of support from parents and teachers, the process now just requires "consultation" with these groups. California State PTA had suggested that parents do not sign letters of support, citing "potential liability," and some school administrators worried that requiring staff support made it more challenging for public schools with unionized teachers to obtain those letters.
Previously, the L.A. County Department of Public Health had announced it would 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).
Los Angeles County Department of Public Health announces that, for now, it will NOT consider requests for waivers to reopen elementary schools.— Carla Javier (@carlamjavier) August 4, 2020
Why? Look at the guidance from the California Department of Public Health ⬇️
LACDPH says case rate is currently 355 per 100,000 pic.twitter.com/pJqNP8kQI4
L.A. county schools are also allowed to welcome back small groups of students - like students with special needs and who are learning English. County health officials had said that the general waiver application process to reopen entire elementary schools would not begin until the county could "monitor the implementation of this effort to safely get students needing specialized in school services back at school."
Public Health Highlights Infection Control and Distancing to Prevent COVID-19 Spread as Sectors Reopen -— LA Public Health (@lapublichealth) October 5, 2020
Seven New Deaths and 472 New Positive Cases of Confirmed #COVID19 in Los Angeles County. View https://t.co/swRrhmNxO0 for more, pic.twitter.com/qpfxDaGAqj
LA Public Health Director Ferrer told the Board of Supervisors at their Oct. 27 meeting that more than 1000 schools have reopened for these specialized services. As of late October, schools are allowed to bring back up to 25% of their enrollment for this in-person support. Ferrer said there have been "small numbers of cases" associated with these limited school reopenings and added that, "with only two exceptions, there are no outbreaks."
Riverside 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," Riverside County Public Health Officer Cameron 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 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.
County health officials are posting both the applicants and the contents of their applications online.
In late September, Riverside County had moved into the red or second-most restrictive tier of the state's reopening framework. But on Oct. 20, the county moved back to the purple, or most restrictive, tier. As a result, schools that had already reopened could remain open, but schools that hadn't yet reopened for in-person instruction must get an approved waiver first.
SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY
County health officials are updating an ongoing list of schools with pending, approved, and denied applications.
"To support a safe opening, the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health (DPH) will consider each community represented by schools requesting a waiver and exercise due caution in issuing approvals," the department says on its website. "DPH will approve waivers every 1-2 weeks as a way to fully consider the impacts before issuing additional approvals in a particular community."
Ventura County moved into the red tier of the state's reopening framework on October 6. Because it remained there for more than two weeks straight, schools are allowed to reopen when ready, without having to go through the waiver process.
The Ventura County Health Care Agency 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 would "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.
The county's ongoing list of applicants shows that public health officials have been asking schools to revise their plans before being granted approvals.
UPDATE: Oct. 27, 2020: This post and map have been updated with modifications to Los Angeles County's waiver application process, and to reflect which counties still require reopening waivers.
UPDATE: Oct. 6, 2020: This post and map have been updated with Los Angeles County's waiver application process.
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