COVID surge forces schools to fall back to distance learning

Gov. Newsom orders school districts in counties on the state’s watchlist to reopen with online instruction only until they are off the list for a 14-day period

TULARE COUNTY – The months-long hand wringing by school boards and administrations over what to do about the upcoming fall semester finally came to an end last Friday. Gov. Gavin Newsom made a sweeping declaration that school districts in counties still on the state’s monitoring list must reopen with distance learning only.

The news came just days after most local school districts had finally announced their plans to reopen in-person instruction based on surveys of parent and teacher preferences and careful consideration of guidance from national, state and local health officials. The plans were a mixed bag of morning and afternoon classroom splits, two days on campus and three days online, a full return to school as normal and the continuation of full-time distance learning. Despite all the hard work, the latter will provide a county-wide framework for opportunity.

Parents who were hoping to send their students off to school in a few short weeks are still saddled with what to do now that local schools will not be open to in-person instruction. Visalia Unified School District hosted a virtual town hall after press time to accept questions from parents over what to expect next month. The Tulare County Office of Education will be holding a Virtual Learning Conference on Aug. 4 featuring over 30, one-hour online sessions for parents, administrators, teachers, student and family advocates, academic coaches, and school psychologists. (See story on this page for details.)

As of Monday, Tulare County had only met three of five metrics on the state’s monitor list. The county continues to lag behind in case rate per 100,000 residents and positivity rate. Assessed on a rolling 14 day average, Tulare County has 280.3 cases per 100,000 residents. The metric to meet to get off of the monitoring list is 100 cases per 100,000 residents.

The county’s positivity rate which is assessed on a rolling 7 day average is 14.9%. The metric to meet to move off of the state’s monitoring list in that category is 8%.

The county’s increase in hospitalization rate, which is assessed on a rolling 3 day average was in line as of Monday. Which means that the county’s hospitalizations had increased by less than 10%.

During his press conference, the Governor laid out five principals to guide schools on whether or not they should open to in-person learning. The most important of which was for a district’s county to b off the monitoring list for 14 days. That’s a somewhat insurmountable obstacle for Tulare County, which has been on the list since it was created.

“Schools that don’t meet this requirement must begin the school year this fall through distance learning,” Newsom said. “Each part of the state is unique, and each part of the state is distinctive. Even those who are on the monitoring list…we hope they will fall off the monitoring list.”

Newsom didn’t give schools a pass on the first iteration of distance learning in the spring. The Governor said the fall will include more “rigorous distance learning” with every child having access to a device and internet connection. He required districts to provide daily, live interaction between teachers and students, assign students challenging assignments equivalent to in-person classes, adapt lessons for English learners and special education students.

“All of these are new statewide requirements,” he said.

If schools open, the Governor reiterated safety precautions that were outlined in the California Department of Education’s “Stronger Together: A Guidebook for the Safe Reopening of California’s Public Schools that was released more than a month ago. He said students in third grade and above will be required to wear face masks all day but students in grades TK to 2 will be encouraged to wear masks or face shields. Students must remain six feet apart from other students and their teacher, students and staff must use hand-washing stations prior to entering and leaving classrooms, classrooms must be disinfected between periods. Every student must be checked for symptoms before the school day begins and if they display symptoms, must be held in a quarantine area until they can be picked up by their parents. He said he recognizes the huge burden the system will place on parents.

If a student tests positive for COVID, the entire classroom will be sent home to quarantine for two weeks. If multiple classrooms representing more than 5% of the student population have confirmed cases of the virus, the entire school will be closed for 14 days. Entire districts will shut down if 25% of the schools are shut down due to confirmed cases.

“Learning remains nonnegotiable but neither is the safety of all our cohorts,” Newsom said.

Newsom said teachers will be tested on a cohort bases every other month and the state’s 20,000 contact tracers will be focusing their attention on cases involving students and teachers.

“The data of this virus based upon age… we’re not just talking about our children. We are also talking about those we entrust our children with when we drop them off at school,” Newsom said. “It’s an ecosystem.”

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