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State tightens rules for reopening schools as high COVID-19 rates hold districts back

Masked teachers stands in 4th grade class.
Rya Hege teaches her fourth-grade class at T.H.E. Leadership Academy in Vista in October.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Governor Gavin Newsom has made changes to his plan to reopen schools, including a small decrease in the case rate that would allow elementary students to campus for in-person classes.

Under the new guidance, K-6 schools in counties with a seven-day average of 25 or fewer cases per 100,000 residents would be eligible to begin reopening, down from the 28 cases per 100,000 that the governor had announced in December.

That number is significantly lower than the current rates in many California counties, offering diminished hope that schools — particularly in Southern California — can reopen soon. In L.A. County, for example, the adjusted COVID-19 case rate is 77 per 100,000 residents; Orange County, 79; Riverside County, 107; San Bernardino County 103 and San Diego County, 70.

In December, Newsom announced a $2-billion package of incentives to encourage a return to in-person classes. It prioritized returning students in kindergarten through second grade as well as those with special needs starting in mid-February, with the remainder of elementary school students returning early as mid- March. It is unclear when older students would return to campuses.

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The plan, however, was met with pushback from the leaders of some of California’s largest school districts, who said it would widen inequities.

The governor also announced Thursday an online reporting portal and hotline that will allow parents and staff to report school safety concerns and a website that will serve as an information hub for reopening and allow school administrators to request technical help to develop and implement safety plans.

In making the announcement, the governor again emphasized the importance of returning to in-person learning.

“Learning is nonnegotiable, and getting our kids and staff back into the classroom safely will help us continue turning the corner on this pandemic,” Newsom said in a statement.

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The reopening guidance requires that masks be worn by all students regardless of age and recommends that staff members who come into regular contact with others wear disposable surgical masks.

Under the guidance, some of which was described in a letter to local health officers and superintendents, schools should also ensure that teacher and staff desks are at least six feet away from student desks. Schools were also told they must make “a good-faith effort” to ensure that student chairs are at least six feet apart from each other. “Under no circumstances should distance between student chairs be less than four feet,” the letter says.

The state also announced new reporting requirements, requiring districts to notify the Department of Public Health about whether they are providing in-person learning.


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