Gov. Gavin Newsom and state health officials said Tuesday they expect all schools and higher education institutions to open for full-time in-person instruction in the fall, following the announcement that California intends to retire its “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” color-coded tier system on June 15.
Some believe the announcement will set the tone for debate with the Legislature during the annual “May Revision” of the state budget about whether schools will be mandated to offer in-person instruction in the fall. Derick Lennox, director of Government Relations and Legal Affairs for the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, also predicts a debate over whether districts will be allowed or required to offer distance learning as an exception to full in-person instruction for those families that request.
Since August 2020, the tier system has guided when schools can or can’t reopen for in-person instruction, requiring them to be out of the most restrictive “purple” tier for at least two weeks in order to bring students back into the classroom.
After reaching a milestone of more than 20 million vaccine doses administered in California, including 4 million to the state’s low-income communities hardest hit by the pandemic, state officials promised to move toward ending the tier system. However, the state must continue to have enough vaccine supply to meet the demand and Covid-related hospitalizations must remain low.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said he “expects” all K-12 schools and community colleges to offer in-person instruction after the state eliminates the tier system, though it’s unclear what individual school districts will decide to do after most end the traditional school year by June 15.
“I want kids back in school safely for in-person instruction,” Newsom said. “On June 15, we anticipate there will be no barrier to getting all of our kids safely back, not just K-12, community colleges, including institutions of higher learning.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said he also he sees a way for schools to return safely in the fall.
“I share Governor Newsom’s optimism that as conditions continue to improve, and as all Californians continue common-sense measures, such as continuing to wear a mask and getting vaccinated, there is a clear pathway to a safe and full return to in-person teaching and learning this fall,” Thurmond said in a statement.
Still, Thurmond urged the state to “proceed with caution” as there are still many unknowns about the Covid variants and their spread among youth. He’s “heartened,” however, by early research on vaccine effectiveness in adolescents.
Thurmond said the state “must prepare for the possibility” that some families may not be prepared to send their students back to school campuses in the fall, and that schools may need the flexibility to offer some form of remote learning.
California Teachers Association spokeswoman Claudia Briggs did not directly comment on the plan to drop the tier system. However, in a statement, she cautioned not to loosen safety measures already in place when returning to school and to continue to closely monitor community infection rates.
“As students and educators continue to return to classrooms for in-person teaching and learning, we must all keep our eyes on safety ensuring that all the safety protocols are in place to protect our students, their families, educators and staff,” Briggs said.
California Department of Public Health officials did not specifically say what safety protocols would remain in place for schools after the tier system goes away but that schools would have to remain “in compliance with Cal/OSHA emergency temporary standards and public health guidelines.” Masks will continue to be a requirement at schools and businesses, said California Health and Human Services secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly.
Edgar Zazueta, senior director of policy and government relations for the Association of California School Administrators, said the expectation of in-person instruction in the fall could throw a wrench into many educators’ current plans for a distance or hybrid model.
“The takeaway is that full-person instruction should be the expectation; there would be no justification for hybrid in the coming year,” Zazueta said.
Between now and June 15, while the color tiers still apply, the California Department of Public Health is implementing further changes in the criteria determining tiers, which have pushed more counties from tiers with the most restrictions – purple and red – into tiers with the least restrictions, orange and yellow.
As of Tuesday, 32 of 58 counties, covering 81% of the state’s population, including Los Angeles, are in orange, indicating a moderate rate of Covid infection. Only two counties with less than 1% of the population remain in purple: Inyo and Merced, and 22 counties are in red, indicating a substantial rate of infection. Two of the least populated counties, Sierra and Alpine, are in yellow.