Most California Schools Will Start Online Under New Newsom Order

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Children in an elementary school class wearing masks enter the classroom with desks spaced apart as per the coronavirus guidelines during summer school sessions at Happy Day School in Monterey Park, California on July 9, 2020. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Gov. Gavin Newsom laid out strict new criteria Friday for school reopenings in California, making it unlikely that the vast majority of public and private K-12 schools throughout the state, serving millions of students, will be able to start the academic year with in-person classroom instruction, amid surging cases of the coronavirus.

Under Newsom's order, schools located in counties on the state’s “watchlist” for high per capita infection and hospitalization rates, among other indicators, are not allowed to hold in-person classes until they have been off the list for at least 14 days. Currently, 33 counties — home to more than 80% of the state — are on that list, including every county in the Bay Area except San Mateo.

“If you are not on that monitoring list you can move forward as a county if you choose to physically open your campus, physically open your schools,” Newsom said at a noon press briefing. “However schools that don’t meet this requirement — they must begin the school year this fall through distance learning.”

The strict new regulations marked a dramatic shift from Newsom’s earlier position that it was up to local school districts and boards to decide when and how to reopen. The announcement, which follows his sweeping rollback Monday of plans to reopen businesses, comes just weeks before many of the state’s more than 1,000 school districts are set to resume instruction in mid-to-late August.

As school districts wrestle with the decision, teachers unions, parents and school officials have urged state leaders to provide more direction on whether it is safe to go back to school.

California this week reported its second-highest one-day totals in new infections and deaths since the start of the pandemic, with an average of 8,838 positive cases a day over the last week and a 22% increase in hospitalizations in the past 14 days. More than 7,500 people in California have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, including over 1,100 in just the last two weeks.

A father of four young children, Newsom acknowledged the difficulty this situation will create for scores of schools, students and working parents.

“Our students, our teachers, staff and certainly parents, we all prefer in-classroom instruction for all the obvious reasons, but only if it can be done safely,” Newsom said, noting the more than 6 million students and 625,000 teachers and other staff members in California’s public schools. “But safety is foundational and safety will ultimately make the determination of how we go about educating our kids as we move into the fall.”

The updated guidance from the state Department of Public Health lays out in detail the rules that both public and private schools throughout the state must follow when they reopen. It requires all school staff and all students in third through 12th grades to wear face coverings. Younger students are also encouraged to wear them.

All adults in schools will also be required to stay six feet away from one another and six feet away from children, while students should be encouraged to maintain that same distance from each other whenever possible.

Anyone entering a school must be temperature checked, and any teachers or students with a fever or other symptoms have to be sent home immediately. Staff members must also be tested for the virus on a rotating basis, with school sites required to make ample hand-washing stations available and implement other ”deep sanitation, deep disinfection” measures Newsom said.

The state guidance also spells out when classrooms and schools would be required to close if there is a local outbreak. If a student or educator tests positive for the virus, all students and staff exposed to that person should be quarantined for 14 days.

Meanwhile, an entire school would have to revert to distance learning if multiple cases are reported, or if 5% percent of students and staff test positive within a 14-day period. And an entire district would have to revert to distance learning if 25% or more of its schools have been physically closed due to COVID-19 within a 14-day period.

“The one thing we have the power to do to get our kids back into school? Wear a mask, physically distance, wash your hands," Newsom said.

Newsom emphasized that schools “must provide meaningful instruction during the pandemic, whether they are physically opened or not.” He called for “rigorous online and distance learning,” while also noting the formidable challenges many schools faced in the spring, particularly in regard to technology resources and internet connectivity issues.

“Access to devices is one thing, and connectivity, it's foundational,” Newsom said, pointing to funds still available from a $5.3 billion package passed last spring that districts could access to "address this yawning gap as it relates to the digital divide."

“We want daily live interaction with teachers and other students, students connecting peer-to-peer with other students, teachers connecting daily and an interactive frame to advance our distance learning efforts,” Newsom said. Schools, he added, must also make specific remote learning accommodations for students with special needs, including homeless and foster care students, those with learning disabilities and English language learners.

“I think we’re going to see a lot more capacity this school year than we were able to have in all districts last school year, to really respond to both classrooms as a whole and the needs of particular students,” State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond said.

Newsom’s administration and the state Department of Education had released guidelines in early June for districts to follow when reopening, including implementing temperature checks for students, remaking activities such as lunch and recess and recommending cloth face coverings for students and teachers. But at that time, California had managed to keep its COVID-19 case count under control.

“Since we’ve issued our guidance, conditions have changed dramatically,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said during a media briefing Wednesday.

Republican Assemblyman Kevin Kiley from Sacramento accused the governor of listening to “special interests, not science" in laying out the rules.

“Rather than adopting a balanced approach that provides California families options for classroom-based and home-based learning, the governor is shutting down the vast majority of schools across the state," Kiley said.

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A growing number of large school districts have already said their schools will begin the new term remotely, including Los Angeles and San Diego, the state’s two largest districts, with a combined enrollment of 720,000 K-12 students. San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Sacramento, Long Beach, Santa Ana and San Bernardino are among the other districts that recently announced they would not immediately return to classrooms for the fall semester.

Education officials in a growing number of cities nationwide, including Atlanta, Nashville and Houston, have also recently announced plans to start the academic year remotely, despite ongoing pressure from President Trump and some Republican governors to open up classrooms.

“I'm generally happy with this. What the governor did today was establish a consistent set of criteria across local health jurisdictions that will lead, I think, to more consistent decision making across the state,” said Berkeley Unified Superintendent Brent Stephens. He expressed concern, though, that there would not be nearly enough state and federal funding available to provide districts with the necessary resources for effective distance learning and ongoing COVID-19 testing of school staff.

Jeff Freitas, president of the the California Federation of Teachers, which has urged Newsom to delay the physical reopening of all schools this fall, said the order doesn't go far enough in protecting teachers.

“The guidance allows for millions of students, teachers, and classified education professionals to remain in harm’s way,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, (it) allows for some districts to continue to operate in dangerous conditions.”

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Ashley Jones, a fifth-grade teacher in the Twin Rivers Unified School District outside Sacramento, said she was relieved to find out the school year will start with distance learning.

“People don’t quite understand that schools and classrooms are honestly a cesspool of germs,” said Jones, who has Type 1 diabetes and is considered high risk. “It’s not like you’re in the office with a bunch of adults who know not to sneeze on each other.”

This article includes additional reporting from the Associated Press and KQED's Vanessa Rancaño and Julia McEvoy.

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