The next big hurdle: California schools grapple with how, when or if to reopen campuses

Just as students and teachers across California are adjusting to distance learning, many districts are bracing for a new challenge, one that may be even more daunting: How — and when — to re-open campuses safely.

Although the coronavirus continues to spread in California, some districts have reopened for in-person classes, and others may be able to welcome students back to campus as soon as this month. Those in areas with the highest infection rates will stay closed for the foreseeable future.This article was reported by EdSource reporters Carolyn Jones, John Fensterwald, Daniel J. Willis, Michael Burke and Zaidee Stavely.

Meanwhile, decisions about reopening are fraught with unknowns. Teachers, parents and superintendents all want to ensure safe conditions, but disagree about what constitutes “safe.” And conditions change constantly, as research about the coronavirus evolves, infection rates fluctuate and counties move on and off the state’s monitoring list.

The result, in many districts, has been fear and painstaking caution, no matter how eager students and their families are to return to in-person school.

“People are scared. They don’t have firm information, and they hear contradictory information, which only furthers their fears and uncertainties,” said San Jose Unified Deputy Superintendent Stephen McMahon, whose district is currently still barred by state guidelines from in-class instruction. “I think that is our biggest challenge in getting schools open: Nobody knows the best practice for adults and young people working together.”

Parent Talmera Richardson of Oakland, where schools are similarly restricted from opening, said the deliberations over reopening campuses feels like “playing Russian roulette” with children’s lives — especially for communities of color, which have seen particularly high infection rates.

“People must look at the science, stick to the science and look at the numbers, especially in the Black and brown communities,” she said.

Districts are mulling hybrid schedules, classroom deep-cleaning protocols and other steps to minimize risk. They’re also looking at what has worked, and has not worked, at charter and private schools that have already re-opened for students.

Regardless of their timelines, all districts will eventually navigate the complicated steps to bringing students back to campus.

“At some point, we’re going back to school,” said Bob Nelson, superintendent of Fresno Unified. “So we need to start dealing with it.”

The issues surrounding how and when to reopen schools are complex and rife with debate and many unknowns. The following are key pieces that must fall into place before school districts can welcome students back to campus, even if their counties are not on the Tier 1 purple-colored list.

Teachers may get the final word 

In most of California’s school districts, teachers will be the X factor in the plans for an in-person return to school. Negotiations in coming weeks between unions and administrators — and their lawyers — will determine when and if, particularly for at-risk and older teachers, they will return to the classroom and under what conditions.

The California Teachers Association has insisted teachers should return only when it is safe and health and safety protocols are in place. But teachers, like parents, are divided on what they consider “safe,” and perceptions can quickly change, said Patrick Bernhardt, president of the San Jose Teachers Association.

In July, partly because of perceived health risks, San Jose Unified teachers rejected the district’s request for them to teach via distance learning from their classrooms to their still homebound students. Yet as of late August, 70% of teachers on their own decided to teach remotely from their schools, Bernhardt said. That is why most districts are once again surveying parents and staff.

For districts with formal agreements already in place with their unions on what hybrid and other in-person systems will look like, the transition could be quick.

Terry Walker, superintendent of 35,000-student Irvine Unified, said a reopening date will be set shortly after schools can open in Orange County on Sept. 22. When they return for in-person instruction, students will have the same teachers they had during distance learning. Student assignments factored in which teachers have health risks and cannot do in-school instruction.

Other superintendents face weeks of intense negotiations. Bob Blattner, a Sacramento-based education consultant, said it’s a sensitive issue with conflicting interests: Can parents get back to work? Will teachers be exposed to asymptomatic carriers? Will highest-needs students fall farthest behind?

“Superintendents do not want to get ahead of negotiations or get sideways with the community,” he said.

Julie Walker, president of the Sweetwater Education Association, which represents 1,800 teachers in Sweetwater Union High School District in south San Diego County, said Covid-19 metrics will determine when teachers return. She said officials should consider not only countywide rates but those in specific areas such as Chula Vista, which has had high spikes of Covid-19. The district should “err on the side of caution” and learn from the experience of private and charter schools that will reopen first, she said.

Maintaining social distance “with kids who want and need contact with their peers” will be a challenge. Proper ventilation in old buildings is a big concern. Having handwashing stations in place and cleaning protocols for classrooms serving different student groups are non-negotiable, she said.

The reluctance of teachers with health concerns to return could be one of the biggest hurdles, said Mark Campbell, superintendent of 2,800-student Calaveras Unified in the Sierra foothills. It’s been offering distance learning since Aug. 14, even though, under the state’s new color-coded designation system, it can offer in-person instruction.

“If today were Judgment Day, we would not be able to pull it off,” he said. “The district could reopen schools, but teachers could decide to take leaves of absence and leave the schools understaffed.”

What the data says

According to the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, 33 counties are in Tier 1, meaning the coronavirus is “widespread.” A designation of Tier 1, which is color-coded purple, prohibits schools from opening for in-person instruction without a waiver.

School districts in counties designated Tier 1 can apply for a waiver from their county health officer to open K-6 classrooms.

Statewide, 112 public schools have been granted waivers to reopen, as well as approximately 200 private schools, religious schools, tutoring centers and other non-public schools.

Counties fall into that tier if they report more than an average of seven new Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people per day during the preceding week or if more than 8% of coronavirus tests are positive.

As of Sept. 8, the Tier 1 counties include 681 school districts and 944 charter schools with an enrollment of about 4 million students. That means that at least 73% of public school students in California had to begin the school year with distance learning.

The districts serving the remaining students are free to offer in-person instruction, or do so in the next 14 days. But because there is no central database it is not known how many are doing so.

However, Gov. Gavin Newsom last week said the new four-tiered system is based on what the state has already learned about Covid-19, as well as how other states and countries are tracking it and planning re-openings.

“To the extent we’ll learn from this experience, over the next 60-90 days, I imagine we’ll try to tweak that [the four-tiered system] as well, moving into January, February and March,” Newsom said last week.

State safety protocols: Contact tracing, masks and more

Before California schools can reopen for in-person learning, they must adhere to a long list of safety protocols under the state’s guidance, including:

  • Requiring masks for students in third grade and above. They are encouraged for students in second grade and below.
  • Implementing physical distancing to the extent possible inside classrooms and outside them, such as on the bus and at lunch.
  • Ensuring proper ventilation, including opening windows when possible and replacing air filters.
  • Conducting daily wellness and symptom checks.

How easy is it for schools to follow those protocols?

A few public schools across the state, including Lucerne Valley Elementary in Southern California’s high desert, have already opened with those and other safety measures in place. Lucerne Valley was one of the first public schools in the state to receive a reopening waiver for its sole elementary school.

At that school, students have their temperatures checked each day as they enter the campus. Inside the classroom, each desk has its own sneeze guard. And there are new rules to ensure physical distancing, such as having some students eat lunch outside, keeping students in their cohorts even at recess and bringing students to school just two days a week.

Some students could also soon be back in the classroom in other parts of the state, including in Los Angeles County, where beginning on Sept. 14 schools can welcome onto campus small groups of students who are English learners, students who have individualized education plans or other students who need specialized in-school services.

These schools also will have to adhere to the same general reopening protocols,which include having measures in place to ensure physical distancing, screening students and staff for symptoms and routinely disinfecting surfaces. For schools that decide to reopen for those students, they cannot have more than 12 children at the school at a time. The county is highly recommending that schools use outdoor space as much as possible.

Debra Duardo, the Los Angeles County superintendent of schools, said in a statement that the county health department’s decision to allow in-person learning for those students “is very encouraging,” adding that students with disabilities and English learners are especially vulnerable during distance learning.

Many districts that have not yet reopened for any in-person learning have created detailed plans outlining how they plan to do so. Long Beach Unified, the state’s fourth-largest district, last month released its “School Opening & Safety Plan,” a 22-page document detailing how the district plans to reopen.

In some cases, their protocols are stricter than the state guidance, including those for masks and face coverings. It’s not yet clear when Long Beach campuses will reopen, but when they do, all staff and all students will be required to wear masks, even those in second grade and younger. When they arrive at school, students and staff will also be screened, which will include a temperature check and answering several questions.

Inside classrooms, nonessential furniture will be removed to allow for maximum space for students to spread out. Covid-19 testing will be recommended for students or staff showing symptoms, and each campus will have a designated isolation room for students showing symptoms.

The district will also regularly replace all filters in air conditioning units. Keeping classrooms well ventilated will be a major factor in safely returning students to classrooms.

Irvine Unified in Orange County has made several changes to facilities in an effort to improve ventilation at that district’s schools, Superintendent Terry Walker said. Those adjustments include upgrading and replacing filters, purchasing air purification systems for every classroom and hiring an “expert agency” to consult with staff to determine ways to maximize air flow.

Sacramento City Unfied’s own reopening plan calls for many of the same protocols, and also says staff will be tested periodically for the virus in line with the state’s guidance. The district has not finalized its testing plans, but it could include testing 25% of staff every two weeks.

The state’s largest district, Los Angeles Unified, is planning to go a step further and conduct routine coronavirus testing and contact tracing of all students and staff.

Superintendent Austin Beutner announced the plan in August, and the district expects to start rolling out the program this month. The district will start by testing staff who are currently working in schools, as well as their children, before ultimately extending the program to all students and staff, including those who are working or studying from home.

Beutner said in a televised speech recently that the district and its partners — which include UCLA, Stanford University and Johns Hopkins University — are still fine-tuning details, “from scheduling individuals to take virus tests and nurses to administer them to making sure the lab operations and data are coordinated.”

If a student or staff member tests positive, that person should be sent home to quarantine for 14 days, according to the state’s guidance. Anyone who came within close contact of that individual should also be sent home to quarantine for 14 days.

Schools may have to close when 5% or more of all teachers, students and staff are positive for Covid-19, but schools should consult with public health officials before making that decision. An entire district should be closed when 25% or more of schools in the district are closed because of positive Covid-19 cases.

Schools will typically be able to reopen after 14 days in consultation with their local public health departments. Before a school reopens, though, there first needs to be a public health investigation and a deep cleaning of the school, per the state’s guidance.

Districts’ growing fear of lawsuits

Adding to the list of worries, districts also fear lawsuits from families alleging their children have caught the coronavirus while at school.

School districts had hoped they would get liability protection from the Legislature, but that didn’t happen when legislation died in a Senate committee without a hearing. The bill would have shielded districts and charter schools from Covid-19-related lawsuits, as long as schools made reasonable efforts to follow local, state and federal coronavirus health and safety regulations. It also would have placed the burden of proof that the transmission happened at school on the plaintiff, not the district.

School officials complain that their insurers say they’ll deny coverage from coronavirus lawsuits; as a result, legal costs would come out of districts’ general budgets. They’re not saying that issue alone would preclude returning to schools, but it does add to their anxieties.

Beutner spoke for many when he said in June, “If someone were to become ill and the source of the virus was traced to a school, who is going to pay the health bills? Unfortunately, we live in a society with too many lawyers and too many lawsuits. Schools cannot use funds that would otherwise go to instruction to satisfy lawsuits.”

The Legislature returns in January. The issue could come up before then, if Newsom calls a special session or issues an executive order to deal with the problem. But H.D. Palmer, a spokesman from the California Department of Finance, said, “Nothing to report at the moment,” in an email on how or if the issue will be addressed.

Parents’ changing opinions

Over the spring and summer, many school districts surveyed parents to get a sense of how many would actually send their children back to in-person classes, if that were an option. In early June, parent surveys in Los Angeles Unified, Fresno Unified, Long Beach Unified and Elk Grove Unified all found that between two-thirds and three-fourths of parents would prefer in-person classes, with health and safety rules in place.

But with so much uncertainty around the coronavirus, and so many cases increasing in some areas of the state, some parents’ opinions have changed.

Karen Lattin, the mother of a sophomore in Morgan Hill Unified, near San Jose, said back in June that she would prefer face-to-face contact and in-person interaction. Now, however, as coronavirus cases spiked and the first day of school got closer, she changed her mind.

“I got more and more nervous about the situation. I was actually relieved when they changed to 100% distance,” Lattin said. “Right now, I just don’t think they have the ability to pull off safe in-person learning. Not enough funding, not enough PPE, not enough resources in general to do it safely.”

Lattin said she knows some families might have more trouble adapting to distance learning, but she believes public schools need more resources in order to implement in-person instruction safely.

Oakland’s Talmera Richardson said she would not feel comfortable having her son return to class while the coronavirus is still circulating widely.

“I honor my son and his life and his health,” Richardson said. “People must look at the science, stick to the science and look at the rapid numbers, especially in the Black and brown communities.”

Amy Pharis, a mother in Fresno Unified, is also not eager for her fourth-grade daughter to return to in-person classes now, either. In July, she and her daughter both tested positive for Covid-19.

“I’m feeling extra cautious, and I worry that if we open too soon, we’ll be right back at home,” Pharis said, noting that if there are too many cases in a school, the school will have to close again. Pharis is hoping, though, that the number of cases will go down to a point that is safe enough to open schools by mid- to late fall.

Other parents are not as wary about in-person instruction, especially if their children are struggling with distance learning.

“I would send my children back to school if they reopened, with lots of safety precautions,” said Oxnard mom Leticia Solano, who has three elementary-school-age children at home and one middle schooler. “For me it is hard to have them studying from home. Sometimes they can’t all be on Zoom, and I can’t be with all three children at once.”

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