Shortly after Governor Gavin Newsom announced his school reopening rules on Friday, many county education departments facing remote learning this fall informed schools that they can be exempted.
A waiver for in-school classes in COVID-19 watch list counties
In a statement, Governor Gavin Newsom’s office noted that “There is a single exception. Local health officers may grant a waiver to allow elementary schools to reopen in-person instruction if the waiver is requested by the district superintendent, in consultation with labor, parents and community-based organizations. When considering a waiver request, the local health officer must consider local data and consult with the California Department of Public Health.”
While the waiver clause was small, it has drawn the most attention from local schools and parents groups facing a fall with kids at home. Some counties were so inundated with calls and e-mails about possible openings that official statements had to be given out, some even encouraging schools to ask.
The Santa Clara County Office of Education gave the most concise letter to area schools and officials. Working with the County Public Health Department, the letter not only acknowledged low risks of COVID-19 transmission among younger people, but highlighted that children face several non-COVID-19 other problems at home.
“The County Public Health Department and Santa Clara County Office of Education strongly encourages elementary schools to follow this process so that they can safely resume in-person instruction this fall,” said the letter by Santa Clara Education Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan and Director of the Santa Clara Department of Public Health Dr. Sarah Cody.
“This recommendation is based on the current best available scientific evidence, including that COVID-related risks in schools serving elementary age students appear lower than and different from the risks to staff and students in schools serving older students. In particular, there appears to be lower risk of child-to-child or child-to-adult transmission in children under 12, and the risk of infection and serious illness in elementary school children is particularly low.
“By contrast, the health-related risks for elementary age children who are not provided in-person instruction are significant, including lower rates of immunizations, higher rates of undetected child abuse and neglect, and risk to social/emotional well being. Moreover, in-person instruction is academically and socially critical for younger students, in alignment with State standards. Students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds are particularly harmed by a lack of access to in-person instruction.”
A surprise waiver for many education officials
For some school districts the waiver came as something as a surprise.
“We didn’t know anything about it until someone from the county off-handily mentioned it on a Zoom call on Monday,” said Orange County teaching aide Gina O’Rourke in a California Globe interview. “That meeting was supposed to be about cleaning standards, but it quickly turned into a huge free-for-all about a waiver for our schools.”
“They feigned some computer issues just to log off early and stop answering questions about it. None of us knew about it.”
While the waiver was mentioned in the note by the Governor and very briefly in a California Public Health press release, it was by and large not brought up. The official COVID-19 school guidance packet didn’t mention a waiver. State officials didn’t mention a waiver during presentations or talks with schools and the public.
On Monday, when Governor Newsom was asked about such a waiver, he quickly said that it was possible, before changing subjects.
A hidden waiver
The lack of communication from the state has made many counties and districts ill-at-ease over some re-openings, with many accusing the state of trying to “hide” the waiver provision.
“They aren’t bringing it up a lot because they don’t want every school to ask for a waiver,” said former education consultant Ramona Kohl to the Globe. “It’s hard enough. You need unions to agree to the school reopening. You need support from the county. You need the superintendent on board, and parents too. And you need the state to sign off health-wise. That’s a lot of hoops to jump through.”
“But that’s also a lot of time and review. And since the 32 counties on the coronavirus watch list are the most populous counties with the most schools, it could lead to a huge traffic jam of schools trying to open up next month. Unions, who have been wary of reopening, could alone bring it all to a standstill as each school would need to be looked at separately. A school in a far flung off area of LA County where rates are low would face huge county issues due to the overall rate there.”
“The state didn’t want to be saddled with this sort of rush, but it looks like that may happen. And the state doesn’t even have a way in force to determine if schools are fine health-wise yet for waivers. It’s not a great situation.”
While California State Epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan has said such processes would be in place by the end of the week to determine waivers in schools, the issue of bogging down districts and counties with requests is still very much possible.
“Everyone just wants to know if it’s safe,” added Kohl. “If children can go safely back. If they can go back at all. The state made it seem like it was clear cut based on if counties were allowed to or not. The waiver sort of shattered that. They didn’t want that provision to be widespread, but it happened. And now we’re going to have to go through schools one by one who ask for a waiver.”
“And they’ll keep on asking too.”