Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Friday that public and private schools in counties on the state's coronavirus watch list — including currently, Santa Clara County and likely soon, San Mateo County — cannot reopen for in-person instruction until they've been off the list for 14 days.
This means that schools in these counties must plan for full distance learning in the fall, and those that had hoped to reopen their campuses, including Palo Alto Unified, must switch gears. Counties on the watch list have not met state benchmarks for positive case rates, hospitalizations and hospital capacity.
Counties not being monitored by the state can decide locally in partnership with local health leaders whether to offer in-person instruction, Newsom said.
San Mateo County Health Chief Louise Rogers said Friday that the county is not currently on the state's watch list but "likely" will be soon, given the county's case rate of 101.2 cases per 100,000 in the population (a 14-day rolling average).
Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Don Austin sent a letter to staff and families on Friday afternoon confirming that the district will not reopen its elementary schools in August as planned but instead will move to full distance learning for all students.
"The choice to begin instruction through distance learning was difficult and contrasted our desire to work directly with our students with the reality of a national pandemic," he wrote.
In a press conference, Newsom cited the rise in coronavirus cases statewide as a driving force for the new mandate for reopening schools. As of July 16, California has just over 366,000 confirmed cases, with 9,986 new confirmed cases Thursday. Of California's 58 counties, 32 are on the watch list.
"We all prefer in-classroom instruction for all the obvious reasons … but only, only if it can be done safely," Newsom said. "Safety is foundational and safety will ultimately make the determination of how we go about educating our kids."
District superintendents can, however, in consultation with labor unions, parents and community organizations, seek a waiver from their local health officers to allow elementary schools to reopen for in-person instruction, the state said. Health officers must consider local data and consult with the California Department of Public Health when reviewing the waiver requests.
Newsom also announced new criteria to prevent the spread of the coronavirus for schools that are allowed to reopen. Masks will be required for all staff and students in third grade and above (unless they're exempt), and they will be "strongly encouraged" for younger students. Schools should provide masks to students who don't have them and must "exclude" students who refuse to wear masks, the state's new guidance reads.
Staff will be required to keep 6 feet of distance between themselves and their students, while students should maintain 6 feet from one another "as practicable." The school day should start with temperature and symptom checks, Newsom said. The state also will require regular testing of all teachers and staff: 25% of staff should be tested every two weeks, or 50% every month, to rotate testing of all staff over time.
Newsom emphasized the importance of the health and safety of teachers and staff.
"We're not just talking about our children. We're also talking about those we entrust our children with when we drop them off at school as well and their health and safety. It's an ecosystem, our public education system. We are responsible to address the needs of that ecosystem," he said.
If a school or school district resumes in-person instruction, but its county is later placed on the monitoring list, schools should begin testing staff or increase the frequency of testing. They are not, however, required to close, according to the California Department of Public Health.
Acknowledging that distance learning failed to meet the needs of many students in the spring, Newsom said the state expects schools to offer "rigorous" distance learning this fall. Beyond requiring daily, live interaction between teachers and students; providing devices and "challenging assignments equivalent to in-person classes," Newsom didn't provide further detail on how the state defines "rigorous."
He noted that the state has invested $5.3 billion to help schools address learning loss and technology needs, as well as to purchase additional personal protective equipment.
"We want to do our best to create some sense of equivalency with the obvious constraints that is distance learning," he said.
In a statement, Santa Clara County Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan said that "there are elements of distance learning that are extremely challenging, and we will work through these challenges together. We are committed to supporting districts and schools to provide students with multifaceted educational experiences that help them progress academically and keep them engaged while keeping them safe."
In Austin's letter, he said the district has taken steps to "dramatically improve the distance learning experience," including planning for daily synchronous contact between teachers and students, assigning grades, expanding live tutoring and offering child care options for elementary school families.
"We agree with many who expect a different level of preparation and outcomes for the fall," he wrote.
Austin said he's unsure how the state's new mandate will affect a summer program for students with disabilities that's currently underway, child care or the district's plan to offer in-person, targeted support for a small number of at-risk students in the fall.
Newsom also outlined criteria for closing schools in the event of confirmed cases among students or staff. Schools should first consult with their local public health officer, Newsom said. A classroom cohort should be sent home if there is a confirmed case, and other exposed students and staff should be quarantined for 14 days. An entire school should close when multiple cohorts have cases or more than 5% of a school tests positive for the coronavirus.
A school district must shutter if 25% of their schools have closed within a 14-day period, after which time school districts may reopen with the approval of the local public health officer.
The state will soon release guidelines for reopening universities and community colleges, Newsom said.
The state's new guidance for reopening schools is available here.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.