San Diego, other counties on state watchlist can’t reopen school campuses

Coronavirus

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Gavin Newsom announced guidelines for starting a new school year during the coronavirus pandemic Friday, setting standards that would currently require a vast majority of California’s students to start the year with remote learning.

The new rules will allow counties that have not been on the state’s COVID-19 watchlist for two weeks to resume in-person instruction. Thirty-two counties, including San Diego, are currently on the state’s monitoring list, accounting for about 80% of the state’s population.

The mandate applies to both public and private schools.

San Diego Unified School District already had announced plans to begin the new term virtually, though the plan for other large districts around the county had remained in flux going in to Friday’s announcement. Major districts that had also already committed to starting the year online include Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento and Long Beach.

Following the announcement, San Diego County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Gothold released a statement saying officials would review the new order and work with area public schools to implement the guidance.

But not all local leaders are happy about it. County Supervisor Jim Desmond criticized the decision, arguing the decision would be “harmful to our kids.”

“The stats show those under the age of 18 have an extremely small risk of getting COVID-19 and passing it to others,” Desmond said, adding, “Children need social interaction with their peers to promote health mental well-being.”

One of the schools making adjustments after the order is Abraxas High School. The year-round continuation school just resumed in-person classes this week. The school’s plan would have had students on campus twice a week — including temperature checks, staggered lunch schedules and mask requirements for staff — with three days of distance learning.

But now, school officials say they’re transitioning back fully online by Monday.

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said the area must slow the spread of the virus to reopen schools and get the economy moving.

“All children deserve to receive a high quality education and COVID-19 presents very unique challenges to fulfilling the mission,” Fletcher said.

Counties make the state’s watchlist when they surpass certain public health data indicators — such as rising hospitalization rates and confirmed cases. Those regions are given access to state resources and are subject to rollbacks on recently lifted COVID-19 restrictions.

For schools in areas that remain off the list and are allowed to reopen, staff and all students in grades 3 to 12 will be required to wear face coverings. Younger students will be encouraged but not required to wear masks.

The guidance also lays out in detail when classrooms and schools would have to close if there is an outbreak. If a student or educator test positive for the virus, a classroom would have to close and the students and teacher would quarantine for 14 days. An entire school should revert to distance learning if it reports multiple cases, or 5 percent of students and staff test positive within a 14-day period.

With school districts struggling over the decision to reopen, teachers unions, parents and school officials have urged state leaders in recent weeks for more direction on whether it is safe to go back to school.

The state this week reported its second-highest one day totals in infection rates and deaths since the start of the pandemic. Nearly 7,400 have died in California — more than 1,100 of them in the last two weeks.

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