Some California schools want waivers to reopen despite virus

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Fairmont Schools has been preparing for weeks to welcome back students to its five campuses in Southern California's Orange County and never stopped even though Gov. Gavin Newsom has said classroom instruction won't be possible in most places.

The private school with about 2,000 students is hoping to obtain a waiver allowing for classroom instruction but like others interested in providing in-person education they still are waiting on the state to provide details on the requirements.

With classes scheduled to start Aug. 17, time is getting short and preparations continue for a model that would have a teacher simultaneously instructing students who are physically distanced in a classroom and others whose parents prefer distance learning from home.

“Our hope is that we’re able to go forward with our plans,” said Danyelle Knight, a Fairmont spokeswoman. “We just have so much demand for our families to be on campus.”

Rules announced earlier this month by Newsom all but ensure the vast majority of the state’s K-12 schools serving 6.7 million students won’t reopen classrooms when the academic year starts. Newsom stipulated schools in counties that are on a state monitoring list for rising coronavirus infections can't hold classroom instruction until their county is off the list for 14 days.

There now are 38 counties representing more than 90% of the state's population on the list.

Newsom offered some hope, however, for parents in those counties who said their children floundered in the spring with distance learning and need to return to the classroom and activities crucial for their development and mental health. He said the state would create a waiver application for elementary schools — state health officials said they aren't including high schools because studies suggest older children contract and transmit the virus more easily than younger students.

But nearly two weeks after his announcement the state hasn’t spelled out what districts need to do to apply or qualify. However, the state has said a waiver will need the support of teachers. And so far, teacher unions are resistant to returning to classrooms, citing safety concerns.

E. Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Association, said many public schools still lack adequate ventilation and cleaning supplies.

“Simply said, California cannot reopen schools unless it is safe. The same should apply to all schools including those seeking waivers,” he said.

Los Angeles and San Diego, the state's two largest districts, said ahead of Newsom’s announcement that their schools would begin the new academic year with only distance learning. Since then, many other districts have followed their lead.

Stanislaus County has among the earliest start dates in the state — Aug. 10 — and schools are preparing for only online instruction after local public health officials said they believe the virus still poses too much risk for classroom instruction, said Judy Boring, a spokeswoman for the county’s office of education.

Los Angeles County, the state's largest with 10 million residents, Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said her office is preparing district-specific virus data that will be considered in the waiver process. Ferrer said superintendents will need to present letters of support from employee unions and parent organizations to be considered by local officials.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Clara County Public Health officials issued a directive encouraging superintendents to seek the waiver. The directive noted that in-class instruction is critical for younger students, and that these students would likely need child care when schools are shuttered, which means “closure of elementary schools is less likely to significantly reduce transmission.”

Some private school officials said they might be in a better position to seek waivers. Ron Reynolds, executive director of the California Association of Private School Organizations, said he’d like the state to let secondary schools apply as well, noting many private high schools are smaller than public elementary schools and could more easily implement physical distancing requirements.

Reynolds, whose group includes two dozen private school organizations, said he's heard a range of views with some schools eager for waivers and others not interested.

“Some schools are very distraught and feel the desire to resume on site instruction immediately,” he said. “And there are others that see the governor’s most recent guidance as a clear road map that leads to the safe reopening of school campuses.”


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