By Joe W. Bowers Jr., California Black Media
Last Friday, Gov. Newsom held a press briefing to announce his “Pandemic Plan for Learning and Safe Schools.” Although his plan offers clear guidance on when and how schools should reopen, it doesn’t answer some pressing questions.
The governor’s plan incorporates the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) framework that establishes a baseline of standards for K-12 schools to reopen for in-person instruction for the 2020-2021 school year and under what circumstances schools would have to shut down and return to distance learning. Guidance for colleges and universities is still being finalized.
Newsom’s plan for elementary and secondary education during the COVID-19 pandemic focuses on five key requirements: (1) safe in-person school based on local health data, (2) strong mask requirements for anyone in school, (3) physical distancing requirements and other adaptations, (4) regular testing and dedicated contact tracing for outbreaks at schools, and (5) rigorous distance learning.
California schools closed for in-person instruction in mid-March as part of a broader set of CDPH recommendations intended to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Under Newsom’s plan public and private schools in California counties on the state’s coronavirus watch list must stay closed for in-person instruction until the county has remained off the list for 14 days.
Thirty-two counties — including Los Angeles, San Diego, Alameda, and Sacramento — are currently on the state’s monitoring list because of their COVID-19 transmission levels and hospitalization rates. Eighty to 90 % of the state’s students live in these counties and if the status of their county doesn’t change will have to start the school year distance learning.
Newsom said, “Learning is non-negotiable. The virus will be with us for a year or more and school districts must provide meaningful instruction in the midst of this pandemic.”
With his announcement coming just weeks before many of the state’s 1,000 school districts were planning to resume with a hybrid of in-person instruction and distance learning, teachers and parents welcomed Newsom’s updated school opening guidelines because of their concerns about whether schools could open safely with the state experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases.
California Teachers Association (CTA) President E. Toby Boyd said, “Today’s updated guidance from Governor Newsom through the California Department of Public Health is a good step in providing some clarity and uniformity across the state. We cannot reopen unless it is safe!”
Newsom expects schools in counties on the coronavirus watch list to offer rigorous distance learning. “The word rigorous is foundational,” he said. “If we are going to have distance learning, and we will, to make sure that it’s real, that we address equity, we address the divide and its quality to rigorous distance learning.”
The education budget allocates $5.3 billion specifically to mitigate learning loss due to the shortcomings of distance learning and it sets requirements to ensure schools provide rigorous and grade-appropriate instruction. Schools districts are required to provide — devices and internet connectivity; daily, live interaction with teachers and other students; class assignments that are challenging and equivalent to in-person instruction; and targeted support and interventions for English learners and special education students.
During the press briefing Newsom said, “Students, staff, and parents, all prefer in-classroom instruction, but only if it can be done safely.”
Schools in counties not on the watch list when beginning in-person instruction must require students and staff in third grade and above to wear a mask or face covering. Second grade students and below are strongly encouraged but not required to wear masks. If a student arrives for school without a face covering, one is supposed to be provided by the school.
CDPH requires all staff to stay 6 feet from one another and the students. Students should maintain 6 feet from one another when possible. Schools must provide increased sanitation, including the installing of hand-washing stations and periodic disinfectant efforts.
Staff in every California school is recommended to be tested for COVID-19 periodically. The state will provide resources and technical assistance for tracing COVID-19 outbreaks in school settings.
Anyone entering school must be given a health screen. Students or staff found to have a fever or other symptoms must go home immediately. If anyone in a student or staff member’s household is sick, they should stay home.
When at least 5% of the student body and staff are diagnosed with COVID-19, a school will shut down and begin offering distance learning. An entire school district should close if 25 % or more of its schools have closed due to COVID-19 within 14 days, and in consultation with the local public health department. Districts may reopen after 14 days, also in consultation with the local public health department.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said, “Today’s guidance from the California Department of Public Health lays out clear metrics for our schools so that they can best understand the conditions when they must close.”
“Gov. Newsom has heeded the call for additional guidance on the issue of reopening schools, and continues to prioritize the health and safety of communities,” according to California School Board Association CEO and Executive Director Vernon M. Billy
Newsom has provided needed clarity to school districts on when and how to open and close schools and signed a budget that included distance learning standards. However, important questions remain unanswered. Two important ones are: What will be done about the ineffective and inadequate online teaching many students — especially Black and Brown students — experienced during the strict stay-at-home order last Spring, and, with kids at home, how will we address the needs of working parents?