California Bars School Reopening in Covid-Ravaged Counties

Residents of East Los Angeles stand in line and wait in their cars to collect food donations outside James A. Garfield High School as part of the school district’s effort to support families struggling through the Covid-19 pandemic. (Courthouse News photo / Martin Macias Jr.)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California will bar schools from reopening in counties hardest hit by the novel coronavirus pandemic until the counties stay off the state’s Covid-19 watchlist for at least 14 consecutive days.

Governor Gavin Newsom made the announcement Friday at a press briefing on school reopening guidelines. Newsom strongly urged anyone in reopened schools to wear face coverings and practice physical distancing — but also pushed distance learning as an alternative to reopening during the pandemic, which continues to rage across the Golden State.

Currently 30 of California’s 58 counties are on the watchlist, based on data including the number of new infections per 100,000 residents, test positivity rate and the change in hospitalization rate, among others.

Elementary schools in counties on the watchlist can reopen if the district superintendent requests a waiver after consulting with community groups.

Newsom said the state has earmarked $5.3 billion in additional funding to help schools safely reopen during the pandemic, with a focus on achieving distance learning equity. He is encouraging districts to use these funds to invest in laptops or other devices and to purchase wireless hotspots for students without access to the internet at home.

“None of us want to see education virtualized. I believe profoundly in the power of individuals being engaged with others,” Newsom said.

In schools that are allowed to reopen, all staff members and students in third grade and above must wear face coverings. Younger children are encouraged to wear face masks or shields but aren’t required to do so.

School personnel must remain six feet apart from each other and students at all times. Schools must administer symptom and temperature checks for staff and students at the beginning of each school day, and provide easy access to hand washing stations and disinfectant.

Schools must also be ready to implement quarantine protocols if necessary.

Staff must be tested on a rotating basis regularly to ensure their own safety and the safety of their students. State contact tracers will prioritize schools in the event of a surge in cases.

For schools that cannot reopen, Newsom said distance learning must be rigorous for all students. Teachers should interact with their students on a daily basis and must provide them with challenging assignments that are equivalent to those they would normally complete in the classroom.

Newsom also laid out guidelines for when schools are forced to shut down again but noted they should first consult with a public health officer. The governor said a classroom should close when there is a confirmed case and a school should close when multiple cohorts have confirmed cases or when more than 5% of the school has tested positive. Whole districts should shutter 25% of its schools are closed within a 14-day period.

“The one thing we have the power to do to get our kids back into school: look at this list again. Wash your hands, physically distance, wear a mask,” Newsom said.

As of Thursday, California and 9,986 confirmed coronavirus cases and has administered 124,052 tests in the last seen days. The positivity rate is 7.4%, which is down from around 40% in early April. ICU admissions rose 15% over the past two weeks, with 3,802 ICU beds still available statewide — though some counties are in better shape than others.

“No part of our state is immune from the transmission of this virus — that’s why it’s imperative for everyone to wear a mask,” added Newsom.

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