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Some Orange County schools to reopen as COVID-19 cases drop. What about L.A.?

Gladys Alvarez
Gladys Alvarez, an elementary school teacher in South Los Angeles, talks to her students during a meet-and-greet.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The Orange County Health Care Agency has announced that state waivers have been approved for in-person classes to begin at about 24 private elementary schools and one public school district serving kindergarten through sixth grade.

Under state guidelines, elementary schools may seek reopening waivers from the California Department of Public Health only after their county’s COVID-19 seven-day case average falls below 200 cases per 100,000. Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, said the schools can reopen immediately.

Roughly 100 other Orange County private and charter schools have applied for similar permission and are awaiting approval.

The reopening waivers — which must be approved by county and state public health authorities — apply only to elementary schools, and robust safety plans must be presented. State public health officials and educators offered the waivers acknowledging that online learning for small children is particularly difficult. Also, young children are generally seen as being at lesser risk of developing COVID-19 than older children and adults.

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“Do I have fear and anxiety? Of course I do. Do we expect that there might be an outbreak? Of course we will,” Chau said about concerns to reopen schools. “But we have to do it. We know that this lockdown has caused emotional turmoil for some of our children, and we know that in-home learning is not the best education.”

Chau said that parents who wished to continue with online learning for children, especially those that are high-risk, are encouraged to do so.

Under state rules, all schools can reopen when their county is off the state watch list for 14 days. This means, among other metrics, that county case averages must be below 100 cases per 100,000 people for two weeks.

Orange County officials believe they may be removed from the watch list on Saturday, which could begin the 14-day countdown for school reopenings.

“I am very optimistic that all will go well,” Chau said.

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In Los Angeles County, home to about 1.5 million K-12 students, Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, the county’s chief medical officer, said this week that elementary schools could soon be able to apply for waivers if county COVID-19 cases decline. On Thursday, cases stood at 217 per 100,000, 17 above the threshold for waiver approval.

The county has seen a drop in cases in recent weeks that has encouraged health officials who believe the county may be closer to removal from the watch list. The county meets five of the state’s six criteria for removal from the watch list. The last metric the county has not yet met is a drop in cases below 100 per every 100,000 people.

On Friday, the L.A. County Department of Health announced nine additional cases of children sickened by a rare coronavirus-related inflammatory syndrome, known as MIS-C. The condition affects children who had or may have been exposed to the virus and can cause inflammation of parts of the body including the heart, lungs, kidneys, skin, eyes and gastrointestinal organs.

A total of 25 children in the county have had MIS-C, officials said. None have died.

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In addition, officials reported 46 new deaths related to the virus and 1,759 new cases.

Most recently, San Diego and Placer counties were removed from the list on Tuesday, and Napa County was Thursday. Removal from the watch list does not immediately allow indoor operations at shuttered business sectors — like nail salons and gyms — to reopen after being forced to close. The state’s health officer would have to revise the order to allow for such changes to take place.

Though the daily average for cases and hospitalizations has declined statewide in recent weeks, it is always possible for a resurgence to occur in an individual county. Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday that San Francisco County was expected to be taken off, but the county still sits on the list as cases continue to stay above the safety threshold and the number of available intensive care beds has dropped below 20%.

A decline in cases and hospitalizations not surprisingly leads to a decline in deaths.

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“Hopefully this week and next week you’re going to start seeing the death rate really start to drop,” Centers of Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield said in an interview with the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

The decline in current cases has been attributed to people’s social behaviors and businesses’ modifications in moving indoor operations to outside. It is always possible that a spike in cases could occur if social behaviors relax, as was the case previously over holiday weekends.


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