SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Gavin Newsom announced strict new guidelines that will limit which school districts are allowed to reopen for in-class instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic amid spiking coronavirus cases.
All schools, public and private, will not be allowed to physically reopen if they are located in the counties currently on the state’s COVID-19 watchlist. These districts must begin the school year with distance-learning programs.
San Diego County is one of the 32 counties currently on the list.
This announcement marks a shift from allowing each local county and school district to make decisions regarding reopening and moves it to the state level and the criteria set forth by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH).
"Learning in the state of California is simply non-negotiable," Newsom said.
But he added, "Safety is foundational. Safety will ultimately make the determination of how we go about educating our kids."
School districts that are not currently on the watchlist would be able to reopen physically, but with new criteria. Younger children in classes through second grade would be encouraged, but not required, to wear masks.
Students in grades third through 12 would be required to wear a mask. All staff will also be required to wear a mask. Students should be provided a face covering if they do not have one. The state has delivered over 18 million face coverings to schools to support them to reopen and ensure all students can participate in learning.
Physical distancing will be required for all students and staff. CDPH requires that all adults stay 6 feet from one another and 6 feet away from children, while students should maintain 6 feet of distance from one another as practicable.
For schools in counties currently on the watchlist to reopen, the counties would need to meet the criteria set forth by the California Department of Public Health and also have a 14-day declining trend of new COVID-19 cases.
Once a county does meet the criteria to be taken off the state’s watchlist, the decision to allow schools to reopen for in-class instruction would be decided by local government and school officials.
Testing for school staff was also part of the guidance announced by Newsom on Friday. Staff would be tested at least every 2 months at state-run testing centers.
Under the guidelines announced by Newsom, in schools that are allowed to open, students and staff in individual classrooms will be sent home when a single case is confirmed. The entire school will be closed if cases are confirmed in multiple classrooms, or if more than 5% of the school tests positive for the virus.
An entire district will be closed if 25% of its schools are closed in a 14-day period, he said.
Open schools will be expected to have a series of infection-control measures in place, including morning symptom/temperature checks, hand-washing stations, "deep sanitation" efforts and quarantine protocols.
Driving home his demand that distance-learning be effective learning, Newsom said he expects school districts to ensure that students are engaged in the educational process.
"We want daily, live interaction with teachers and other students - students connecting peer-to-peer with other students, teachers connecting daily in an interactive frame to advance our distance-learning efforts," Newsom said.
He conceded that the effectiveness of distance learning during the spring months varied widely across the state, noting, "Clearly we have work to do to make sure we are doing rigorous distance learning."
"We want to create a challenging environment where assignments are equivalent in terms of what you would otherwise get in an in-person class setting," he said. "I'm not naive, and again we stipulate ... that staff, that teachers, that parents prefer the social-emotional learning of in-class education. That's our default, that's our bias."
But he added, "Under the circumstance with the spread of this virus," keeping campuses closed is a necessity in counties being hard-hit by the pandemic.
Not all parents are on-board with this decision.
"I was just distraught, " said Poway Unified parent Robert Corr. "Now, what are we going to do?"
Corr said he was blindsided when he heard Newsom's announcement that will keep all Southern California schools from re-opening to in-class learning next month, at least for the time being.
"And it was a bit of anger that we are not being heard," Corr added.
Corr started a Facebook group called "Parents for Opening the Poway Schools."
Up until Friday, Poway Unified had planned to allow, for those families who opted for it, in-class teaching at the start of the school year.
He said that's what works best for his 8-year-old son, who is heading in to the third grade.
"Distance learning just does not work for him," Corr told News 8. "He needs to be physically with people."
"I really think we need to learn how to live with this and stay safe in the presence of this virus," Corr said.
Several large school districts in California have already said their schools will begin the new term virtually, including San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento and Long Beach.