Small groups of special education students could soon return to school in person under new, much-anticipated guidance issued by the California Department of Public Health on Wednesday.
The guidance, which applies to public and private schools as well as nonprofits, child care programs, recreation camps, before- and after-school programs and youth groups, allows schools whose counties are still on the state's watchlist — meaning their schools can't fully reopen yet — to serve select students in "controlled, supervised, and indoor environments."
Schools do not need approval from their local health departments to provide this small-group, in-person instruction, the Department of Public Health said.
"The purpose of this guidance is to establish minimum parameters for providing specialized services, targeted services and support for students while schools are otherwise closed for in-person instruction in ways that maintain the focus on health and safety to minimize transmission," a FAQ on the guidance reads.
School districts should prioritize bringing back students with disabilities who need services such as occupational therapy or behavioral support, the FAQ states. Schools can also prioritize English learners, students at higher risk of further learning loss or not participating in distance learning, students at risk of abuse or neglect, foster youth and students experiencing homelessness.
This comes as welcome news in particular for families of students with moderate to severe disabilities who say distance learning is falling short for their children and have been clamoring for face-to-face instruction. Palo Alto Unified is also hopeful it would mean a new program the district created to provide targeted support for struggling students could take place in person.
Superintendent Don Austin said he's encouraged by the guidance, which district staff are reviewing and need to discuss with the teachers and classified employee unions before implementing.
"We want to go as fast as we can reasonably move," he said on Wednesday. "I don't think we have to have every single part of the plan dialed out before we start bringing back some students."
Under the state Public Health Department's guidelines, students can only return in stable groups of no more than 14 children and no more than two adults, who stay together for all activities and avoid contact with people outside of their group while at school. The cohorts must remain separate for activities such as art, music and exercise, and should have their own classroom space. Students can, however, receive one-to-one specialized services from an outside service provider that's not part of the cohort.
Cohorts can be smaller than 14 or can be divided into subgroups, as long as the 14-to-2 ratio is not exceeded. The groups should be created based on student needs and kept as small as possible to limit the risk of spreading the coronavirus, the Department of Public Health said.
"This practice decreases opportunities for exposure to or transmission of the virus; facilitates more efficient contact tracing in the event of a positive case; and allows for targeted testing, quarantine, and isolation of a single cohort instead of an entire population of children or youth and supervising adults in the event of a positive case or cluster of cases," the guidance reads.
The cap on cohort sizes will prove challenging for students with more severe disabilities who need one-on-one aides, said Kimberly Eng-Lee, co-chair of the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education in Palo Alto.
"It's not inclusion, but it will be instruction and access," she said. "The pandemic and resulting move to distance-only learning has had a profound impact on students with disabilities and their families. This is a good start for kids that simply cannot be supported by a box on a screen, and who are actually regressing at home."
Within a cohort, physical distancing between children "should be balanced with developmental and socio‐emotional needs of the age group," the guidance reads, while adults must socially distance "to the greatest extent possible," the guidance states. Both adults and students must wear face coverings.
If staff from different cohorts need to meet, they should do so remotely, outdoors or in large spaces such as gymnasiums or multipurpose rooms, with the windows open and staying at least 6 feet away from one another.
Local school officials, in collaboration with local health departments and school staff, should determine how many cohorts a campus can safely accommodate to avoid interactions between groups but in general, the number of students on a given school site should not exceed 25% of the school's enrollment size or available capacity, the FAQ states.
The new guidance is meant to supplement, not supersede existing public health directives for schools, child care, day camps, youth sports and higher education institutions.
It also applies to elementary schools that haven't received a waiver from their local public health department to reopen. In Santa Clara County, only one school district — Moreland School District in San Jose — has received the green light to offer in-person instruction to elementary school students with disabilities and distance-learning support services to elementary school students, according to an online list of waiver approvals. San Mateo County has not yet issued any reopening waivers,
according to Patricia Love, administrator of strategy and communications for the San Mateo County Office of Education.
Statewide, as of Aug. 25, the California Department of Public Health had approved more than 100 elementary school reopening waivers.
In Palo Alto Unified, the district has still been unable to reach agreement with the teachers union on how and when to reopen schools for certain groups of students, including special education students. The teachers union has proposed students with disabilities and at-risk students come back to school in a hybrid/modified model when Santa Clara County is off the state's watchlist for 14 days, and that elementary school students would return at the same time as middle and high schoolers. The district, meanwhile, is lobbying for a staggered reopening approach that brings students with higher needs back sooner than others.
On Tuesday night, the school board approved new agreements on working conditions with the union, committing to further negotiations on these and other issues. The agreements don't prevent the district from offering the newly permissible small-group instruction in person, Austin said.
"We'll make sure that the people that are charged with serving, especially especial education, have everything they need to feel comfortable and safe and that we can provide a good learning environment for our students," he told the Weekly.
Austin said he'll provide an update on the district's next steps on the new guidance in a weekly message sent out to families every Friday.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.