California K-12 Covid safety practices for the new school year | Q&A

Cameron Guidry, a 4th grade student, is focused during his online class on Sept. 3, 2020, from his social distanced desk at the Delano Recreation Center in Los Angeles. (PHOTO: AL SEIB/LOS ANGELES TIMES/POLARIS)

State health officials say schools are ready to open for in-person instruction now that vaccines have been widely distributed, but districts face two major challenges: Children younger than 12 are still not eligible for Covid vaccines, and cases have begun to surge again a month after the state dropped most of its Covid restrictions.

The California Department of Public Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued detailed guidance on how to safely get students back in classrooms, relying on mask-wearing, frequent testing and other practices to prevent Covid transmission.

Q: Will students and teachers be required to wear masks? What if they forget a mask at home, refuse to wear one or are unable to wear a mask?

All K-12 students and adults in K-12 school settings are required to wear masks indoors when students are present. People who have medical conditions that don’t allow them to wear a mask are exempt, but they must wear a face shield with a drape on the bottom edge or another nonrestrictive alternative. Schools must provide students with a face covering if they forget to bring one of their own.

It’s up to the school or district as to how they wish to handle students who refuse to comply with the mask rules. But if the district or school opts to exclude students who refuse to wear a mask, they must provide the student with “alternative educational opportunities.”  

Outdoors, masks are optional for all.

The California Department of Public Health will continue assessing the plan and decide no later than Nov. 1 whether to update the mask requirements.

Q: How often will students and staff be tested for Covid-19?

The state is leaving it up to individual districts and schools to determine how Covid-19 testing will be handled but promises to pay for it. The state encourages frequent testing and community-infection monitoring as a way to stop the spread of Covid.

In its June 16 guidance on testing, Public Health said screening testing on unvaccinated, asymptomatic people can be used every two weeks or less frequently to understand whether the school has a higher or lower Covid case rate than the community. This will guide school officials’ decisions about safety and inform local health departments. 

In its July 12 school site testing strategy recommendations, state public health officials went further and recommended schools with lower case rates than their surrounding communities do periodic testing of a portion of unvaccinated asymptomatic staff and students. Communities with higher case rates than their communities should do either antigen or molecular screening testing for all unvaccinated people weekly or twice weekly.

Q: What happens if a student or staff member has Covid-like symptoms or tests positive for Covid? 

School officials should advise students and staff members with Covid symptoms not to return for in-person instruction until they have met all three criteria: 

  • They have a negative Covid test or a health care provider has provided documentation that the symptoms are due to something else or at least 10 days have passed since the onset of their symptoms. 
  • At least 24 hours have passed since the resolution of a fever without the use of fever-reducing medications.
  • Other symptoms have improved.

If they test positive for Covid, they must isolate at home for at least 10 days since their symptoms began and 24 hours after their fever goes away, per the Department of Public Health’s July 2020 guidance on isolation and quarantine. If they test positive for Covid but don’t have symptoms, they can discontinue isolation 10 days after their test.

They don’t need a negative test to come out of isolation. Since last year, CDC has maintained that people who test positive for Covid aren’t likely to be infectious 10 to 20 days after their symptoms first started. 

Per Assembly Bill 86, which was approved in March, schools are required to report Covid-19 cases to their local public health department. The school’s local public health department will conduct contact tracing, and schools should have a Covid-19 liaison to assist the local public health agency with their investigation.

Q: What if a student or staff member comes into contact with someone who tests positive for Covid at school?

If a vaccinated person comes into “close contact” with someone who tests positive for Covid at a school, they only have to quarantine if they start to show symptoms. Close contact is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as being within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative 15 minutes or longer over a 24-hour period. 

K-12 students, however, are exempt from this definition as long as both students were correctly and consistently wearing masks and other K-12 school prevention strategies were in place. So vaccinated and unvaccinated students who come into close contact with someone with Covid can continue attending school in-person but must get tested at least twice weekly over at least 10 days; testing will likely be available through their school.

If, however, an unvaccinated student came into close contact with someone who has Covid and they were not wearing a mask, they must quarantine for at least 10 days since the last exposure; the quarantine can end after Day 7 if a diagnostic specimen is collected after Day 5 from the date of the last exposure and tests negative. The student must also self-monitor for symptoms daily for up to 14 days from the last known exposure and continue all the recommendations around mask-wearing, hand-washing and other precautions.

If an unvaccinated student or staff member begins to show symptoms during the 14-day period, they must immediately isolate, get tested and contact their health care provider with any questions regarding their care, according to the state Public Health Department.

Q: Will students be required to social distance?

The state has adopted the CDC’s stance that in-person instruction can occur safely without physical distancing requirements as long as masking and other safety practices are in place.

California does, however, recommend schools maximize physical distance between students as much as possible during mealtimes if indoors. The state also recommends schools use additional spaces outside the cafeteria for mealtime seating, such as classrooms, gymnasiums or outdoors.

Q: Where can I find my school’s safety plan?

The California Department of Public Health recommends that all schools and districts post their safety plan outlining the safety measures in place for the 2021-22 school year on their websites and at schools, as well as disseminate the plans to families before the start of the school year.

Also, schools that receive federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds under the American Rescue Plan are required to adopt a “safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services plan” to be reviewed and amended every six months. The plan must describe how the school or districts will keep students and school staff safe using those funds.

Q: Will visitors be allowed on campuses?

The state recommends schools limit nonessential visitors, volunteers and activities involving external groups or organizations with people who are not fully vaccinated, especially in communities with moderate-to-high Covid transmission.

Q: How do California’s safety recommendations for schools differ from the CDC’s?

The biggest difference is that California is requiring all students and staff to wear masks indoors, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated, while the CDC says students and staff don’t have to wear masks if they’ve been vaccinated. California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in July that requiring all students to wear masks would “ensure that all kids are treated the same.” 

The CDC also recommends that 3 feet of physical distance be kept between students within classrooms, and 6 feet of distance is recommended between students and teachers and staff. California has no minimum distance requirements. The CDC recommendations say that if it’s impossible for a school to maintain a physical distance of at least 3 feet between students and fully reopen, “it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as indoor masking.”

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