LOS ANGELES – Gov. Gavin Newsom Friday ordered all school campuses to remain closed when the academic year begins in counties on the state’s monitoring list due to spiking coronavirus cases — including Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego and Riverside counties.
The order means districts across Southern California will begin the new school year with distance-learning programs, as opposed to in-person classes.
Newsom said school campuses will only be allowed to open in counties that have been off the state’s monitoring list for at least 14 days. Counties are placed on the monitoring list based on a variety of factors, including coronavirus positivity, testing and hospitalization rates. As of Friday, 32 California counties were on the list.
Schools that are eventually allowed to reopen will have to meet a series of other requirements, including mandatory masks for staff and students in third-grade and above, physical distancing mandates and regular on-campus coronavirus testing. He also said distance-learning programs at closed campuses must be “rigorous,” with daily student interaction.
“Learning in the state of California is simply non-negotiable,” Newsom said. “Schools must … provide meaningful instruction during this pandemic whether they are physically open, the schools, or not.
“… Our students, our teachers, staff and certainly parents, we all prefer in-classroom instruction for all the obvious reasons — social and emotional, foundationally — but only if it can be done safely.”
He added, “Safety is foundational, and safety will ultimately make the determination of how we go about educating our kids as we move into the fall and we work our way through this pandemic.”
Under the guidelines announced by Newsom, in schools that are allowed to open, students and staff in individual classrooms will be sent home when a single case in the class is confirmed. The entire school will be closed if cases are confirmed in multiple classrooms, or if more than 5% of the school tests positive for the virus.
An entire district will be closed if 25% of its schools are shut down in a 14-day period, he said.
Open schools will be expected to have a series of infection-control measures in place, including morning symptom/temperature checks, hand-washing stations, “deep sanitation” efforts and quarantine protocols.
Driving home his demand that distance-learning be effective learning, Newsom said he expects school districts to ensure that students are engaged in the educational process.
“We want daily, live interaction with teachers and other students — students connecting peer-to-peer with other students, teachers connecting daily in an interactive frame to advance our distance-learning efforts,” Newsom said.
He conceded that the effectiveness of distance learning during the spring months varied widely across the state, noting, “Clearly we have work to do to make sure we are doing rigorous distance learning.”
“We want to create a challenging environment where assignments are equivalent in terms of what you would otherwise get in an in-person class setting,” he said. “I’m not naive, and again we stipulate … that staff, that teachers, that parents prefer the social-emotional learning of in-class education. That’s our default, that’s our bias.”
But he said “under the circumstance with the spread of this virus,” keeping campuses closed is a necessity in counties being hard-hit by the pandemic.
Los Angeles County officials said they respected the governor’s decision, and the county Department of Public Health planned to issue a revised health directive adhering to his order.
“If we work together to do what is needed to slow the spread of the virus, this will help protect our children, our teachers and the many people who make a school function and who educate our children,” public health director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement. “I know this is difficult news for the children and families of Los Angeles County, and we will need to work together as a county to support quality distance-learning opportunities for families and all children until students can get back to in-person instruction at their schools.”
Debra Duardo, the county’s superintendent of schools, conceded that distance learning is not “ideal,” but the “health and safety of students and school staff must come first.” She vowed that schools are committed to providing quality instruction, but said, “It will not be easy.”
“We are deeply concerned about the large numbers of students who have not fared well with online instruction or have completely checked out,” Duardo said. “Most affected are our low-income and Black and Latino students, foster youth and other vulnerable groups. Far too many of our young people were already dealing with the negative effects of trauma, which have only been made worse by school closures and social distancing.
“… If there is a silver lining, it is that L.A. County is 80 districts strong and we will work together to meet the needs of the region’s 2 million preschool and school-age children,” she said.
The issue of school reopenings has become increasingly political, with President Donald Trump insisting that students need to return to classrooms so their parents can return to work. He has threatened to pressure governors or potentially withhold federal education funding for districts that keep campuses closed.