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State Rules Will Force Most California Schools to Reopen Online
Districts in counties with quickly rising caseloads will be required to teach remotely. Masks will be required for most children who do go to school.
Students at Buena Vista Middle School in San Francisco in February before the coronavirus outbreak forced school buildings to close.Credit...Jim Wilson/The New York Times
By Jill Cowan
July 17, 2020, 5:34 p.m. ET
LOS ANGELES — Responding to soaring coronavirus infections and growing concern from teachers, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California announced new rules on Friday that would force many of the state’s districts to teach remotely when school starts next month and require most of its more than six million students to wear masks when they do attend class.
More than half of the state’s counties, where more than 80 percent of its population lives, would currently not quality for schools to reopen based on their surging caseloads and hospitalization rates. The rules would also require schools that are allowed to hold in-person classes to shut down if things deteriorate in their county, or if students or teachers test positive for the virus.
“We all prefer in-classroom instruction for all the obvious reasons,” Mr. Newsom said, “but only if it can be done safely.”
The announcement comes at the end of a week in which many school districts across the state and the country, including California’s two largest, Los Angeles and San Diego , abandoned plans for in-person instruction, saying they would start the school year remotely, and in which California announced a sweeping rollback of plans to reopen businesses.
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Education leaders in Houston, Atlanta, Nashville, Arlington, Va., and Broward County, Fla., also said this week that they planned to open the academic year online, despite pressure from President Trump and some Republican governors who want students in their classrooms five days a week.
In Texas, where state officials had previously put limits on online schooling, new guidelines were issued Friday that would allow as many as eight weeks of online-only instruction when schools return next month.
And leaders of Chicago’s public school system, the nation’s third-largest district after New York and Los Angeles, said on Friday that they are planning for a mix of in-person and online classes. But they stressed that the announcement was a tentative framework, with a final plan expected in August. New York City schools are also planning an in-person and online mix.
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The California rules announced on Friday would force schools in counties that the state has put on a “watchlist,” based on indicators that include new infections per capita, the test positivity rate and the hospitalization rate, to teach online until conditions improve. Currently, 33 of the state’s 58 counties, including many of the most populated, are on the list .
Counties would have to be off the list for at least two weeks before their classrooms would be allowed to reopen, but the decision would still be up to local officials on whether to resume in-person classes, the governor said.
The rules would also require teachers and staff to maintain six feet of physical distance with one another and children in schools that are allowed to reopen, and mandate masks for students in third grade and up. Younger children would be encouraged but not required to wear face coverings, and all children would be encouraged to maintain six feet of distance.
The guidelines recommend that school employees be tested regularly for the coronavirus, something teachers across the country have been pushing for, although the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said doing so is not necessary , and scaling up testing has been a challenge.
Although California has ramped up its testing to an average of 124,000 per day, experts worry that won’t be enough to suppress the spread of the virus.
Mr. Newsom pointed to updated testing guidelines released earlier this week , which prioritized essential workers and made it harder for people without symptoms to be tested, saying he believed that would allow enough testing for teachers and students.
“Our goal is to increase testing in the state of California,” he said, “but with a different intensity of focus.”
He added that contact tracing can be particularly effective in school environments.
Mr. Newsom’s unveiling of a statewide framework for schools marked a contrast to his usual reluctance to apply one set of policies for all of California, which he has often described as a kind of nation-state unto itself , with roughly 40 million residents spread across a vast and varied geography.
By and large, Californians have said they are supportive of restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus. But Mr. Newsom has been hesitant to impose statewide orders, instead repeating that, “localism is determinative” and allowing counties to drive much of their own reopening.
The results have been at times confusing for residents attempting to navigate a patchwork of restrictions — though on Monday, in response to climbing numbers of new cases and shrinking hospital capacity in some areas, he announced the most sweeping statewide rollback yet of efforts to reopen many businesses.
Still, the state’s efforts have met pushback from conservative officials, largely in more rural parts of the state where the virus has hit less hard, but also in some populous counties.
In Orange County, where local officials have taken public stances against many of the state’s restrictions , the Board of Education voted this week to recommend that schools reopen without requiring students to wear masks — a decision that sparked widespread outcry. But the board is largely advisory and doesn’t carry authority over the county’s more than two dozen districts, and many education leaders there have said they will adhere to state and county public health guidance.
That difficulty is mirrored at the federal level, where guidance on the safety of reopening schools has been unsteady.
On Friday, the C.D.C. postponed releasing new guidance amid a clash with Mr. Trump, who earlier this month criticized the agency’s proposed school reopening guidelines as “very tough and expensive.” A copy of the draft rules to which Mr. Trump apparently objected, outlined in a document obtained by The New York Times and marked “For Internal Use Only,” warned that fully reopening schools remained “the highest risk” for spreading the virus.
But without being able to send their children to school, parents must shoulder huge burdens, which affects their ability to work. Tens of millions of school children are falling behind academically , and the trends will widen existing socioeconomic gaps.
Some educators — many of whom are parents themselves — are fearful and angry about the prospect of returning to schools with unanswered questions. The 310,000-member California Teachers Association urged state leaders this month to require districts to start the year “under robust distance learning protocols” and described even a hybrid model as “high-risk.”
On Friday, Mr. Newsom emphasized that education officials across the state would be working hard to ensure that all students will have access to “rigorous distance learning,” including access to devices and connectivity and live interactions every day with teachers and other students.
He added that leaders would pay specific attention to students who are homeless, in the foster care system, or who are English language learners. The state, he said, has put $5.3 billion in additional money toward those efforts.
“We want to create some sense of equivalency,” Mr. Newsom said.
In Marin County, a wealthy Bay Area suburb that is on the state’s watchlist, Brooke Palizi, a mother of two elementary school students, said the district recently announced that parents would be able to choose between letting their children attend socially distant in-person classes, remote learning, and a virtual academy akin to home schooling.
The new guidelines, she said, at least take the guesswork out of her children’s back-to-school plans, because they will require the district to stick with remote instruction as long as the county remains on the watchlist.
“A decision’s been made, instead of it being up in the air, which is annoying,” she said.
Reporting was contributed by Dan Levin in New York.