SACRAMENTO — California elementary schools that want to open their doors for in-person learning must consult with parents, labor unions and others on campus and demonstrate their plans for contact-tracing and other public health measures that have been widely implemented in summer camps and child care settings, according to new guidelines released Monday night.
The highly anticipated guidance — along with new rules that impose strict restrictions on youth sports — comes as teachers and families are starting to head back to school across California. It follows Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mid-July announcement that the state would generally require fully online learning for public and private schools located in counties that have landed on the Covid-19 watch list within the past 14 days — which would apply to 38 counties with more than 90 percent of California residents combined.
The only exceptions to the state’s in-person learning ban are elementary schools that receive a public health waiver, and California Department of Public Health enumerated the factors that local health officers will consider when reviewing applications, such as the ability to keep children in “small, stable” groups and available scientific evidence on the risks of transmission at elementary schools “along with the health-related risks for children who are not provided in-person instruction.”
Dr. Erica Pan, the newly appointed state epidemiologist, said a review of cases involving child care settings has not shown evidence of outbreaks. “There’s evolving evidence that children seem to be less affected” by Covid-19, she said in an interview Monday night.
But schools should not bother applying if they are located in counties where the cases are more than double the state’s threshold; their applications will not be considered, the guidance says. And even if an elementary school goes through eighth grade, only grades TK through 6 are eligible for in-person learning.
According to the state’s monitoring site, schools in 14 of California’s 58 counties would not qualify for a waiver. They are largely concentrated in the Central Valley, which has emerged in recent weeks as the state’s biggest concern, but also include Santa Barbara, San Bernardino and Monterey counties.
The waiver path may not matter in some areas. In large school districts serving tens of thousands of students, teachers unions and many parents have insisted on keeping campuses closed until testing, tracing and safety precautions can be assured. Many districts are already in the process of negotiating months-long distance learning plans with teachers.
Earlier Monday, however, Newsom expressed cautious optimism when he said the state’s seven-day average of new cases was 7,764 daily, a 21 percent drop from a week ago.
The state made clear that youth sports leagues and organizations cannot hold competitions. It is, however, allowing some sports to continue in dramatically scaled-back form with social distancing.
Sporting events that require large numbers of youth athletes to congregate would be barred under the state’s guidance, which would rule out many of the contests that comprise a typical season. That constraint encompasses school teams, club teams and recreational teams.
The rules come right as fall soccer leagues normally begin in California.
“Tournaments, events, or competitions, regardless of whether teams are from the same school or from different schools, counties, or states are not permitted at this time,” the state’s guidance warns.
Sports and physical education classes would be restricted to situations when students can maintain 6 feet of distance and interact only within small, contained groups known as cohorts. When sports can’t fit those criteria, students would only be able to engage in training and conditioning — and they could only use indoor gyms and weight rooms if fitness facilities are open in their counties. Even then, youngsters would need to wear masks and cannot engage in “heavy exertion.”