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California health officials release guidance on elementary school waivers for in-person instruction, youth sports

The guidance released Monday details how the waiver process works and includes steps and guidelines for schools that want to resume in-person instruction

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — The California Department of Public Health on Monday released details on the process for elementary schools to request a waiver in order to resume in-person instruction in counties like San Diego which remain on the state monitoring list. The department also issued guidance on youth sports including physical distancing requirements. 

“COVID-19 continues to spread in California, and to help slow transmission we must focus on basic public health guidelines to protect our families, our communities, and our students from the virus,” said Dr. Sonia Angell, State Public Health Officer and Director of the California Department of Public Health. “Today’s guidance ensures that critical public health measures are in place to reduce risk in a number of educational and youth settings.”

Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that counties on the state's watch list within the prior 14 days cannot reopen campuses until their counties stabilize coronavirus infections and hospitalizations. However, "a waiver provision" appearing as a footnote in the five-page framework for reopening schools said it could allow qualifying elementary schools an exemption from distance-learning, even if the county remained on the state watchlist. Details on the waiver process were released Monday.

Also on Monday, parents in the Del Mar Union School District had to submit their choice of either online distance learning known as "Launch" which would be for the entire year or in-person learning once it's allowed. Parents will not be able to switch midyear. 

Superintendent Holly McClurg, Ph.D., is pushing for a waiver. 

"We believe our children need to be in school. School is essential," said McClurg.  

Some parents feel they are not comfortable sending their child back to school while on the watchlist but may once COVID numbers have declined. 

"It's really different for a parent to choose in-person option knowing that a school will follow guidelines and stay closed and go online in the beginning versus picking the in-person option and having to go in pretty soon they are very different decisions," said Lisa Kradjian, Ocean Air Elementary School PTA President. 

Waiver process for elementary schools to resume in-person instruction   

The guidance released Monday details how the waiver process works and includes the following steps and guidelines:

  • A district superintendent, private school principal or head of school, or executive director of a charter school may apply for a waiver from the local health officer to open an elementary school for in-person instruction in a county on the monitoring list. 
  • This waiver is applicable only for grades TK-6, even if the grade configuration at the school includes additional grades. 
  • The application for a waiver must include an attestation that the applicant consulted with parent, labor, and community organizations at each school site for which an application is being submitted.
  • The application must also include confirmation that the elementary school reopening plans have been published on the website of the local educational agency (or private school). 
  • Reopening plans must address, at a minimum, plans for cleaning and disinfection, cohorting, movement within school, face coverings and protective equipment, health screenings, healthy hygiene practices, contact tracing, physical distancing, staff training and family education, testing, communication plans and triggers for switching to distance learning. 

County health officers can only grant a waiver after considering local COVID-19 data and consulting with the California Department of Public Health.

The guidance from the California Department of Public Health also lays out what the local health officer should do upon receipt of a waiver application including that they review and consider the following: 

  • Available scientific evidence regarding COVID-related risks in schools serving elementary-age students, along with the health-related risks for children who are not provided in-person instruction. 
  • Whether elementary in-person instruction can be provided in small, stable cohorts. 
  • Local health guidance, safety plans, availability of appropriate PPE, and availability of public health and school resources for COVID-19 investigation and response. 
  • Local epidemiological data. 
  • Local conditions or data contributing to inclusion on the County Data Monitoring list. 
  • Availability of testing resources. 
  • The extent to which the applicant has consulted with staff, labor organizations, community, and parent organizations. 

"Local health officers may conditionally grant an application with limits on the number of elementary schools allowed to re-open or allow re-opening in phases to monitor for any impact on the community," a statement from the department read in part.

Del Mar's superintendent said the district is working with physicians on how to work with social behaviors. They've ordered canopies for outside learning, hired more teachers for smaller class sizes, and hired additional cleaning staff. 

"We are working closely with physicians as well as teachers and our community to make the best decision moving forward," said McClurg.

One parent said he did an informal survey and found 82% of parents in the Del Mar Union School District did not feel safe putting their child back in the classroom while the county was on the watchlist. 

"I think it's more of a question should be kids in the classroom if the county is on the watchlist because that's what the waiver enables," said parent Adam Fischer. "I think the most important thing is to make sure there is communication and support from the parents and teachers on that front."

Parents are also concerned about not being allowed to switch gears to in-person mid-year if COVID cases are down. They are also worried about students in the distance learning choice may not be in a class with peers from their homeschool. 

Del Mar has a student population of about 5,000 and 300 teachers. School is scheduled to start on August 24.

Last week the County Board of Education surveyed its school districts about waivers. Twenty responded, nine were high school districts, which are not applicable for a waiver, three said no, nine were undecided and San Pasqual and Borrego Springs said they would apply for a waiver. Poway Unified also told parents it would explore the option. This could change for undecided schools now that the guidelines have been released. 

Youth sports

The guidance for youth sports released Monday applies to all school-based, club, and recreational programs in California. 

Outdoor and indoor sporting events, assemblies, and other activities that require close contact or that would promote congregating, including tournaments and competitions, are not permitted by the guidance.

"Youth sports and physical education are permitted only when physical distancing of at least six feet and a stable cohort of participants, such as a class, can be maintained," the CDPH's release read in part. 

The guidance also states activities should take place outside "to the maximum extent possible." 

Click here for additional COVID-19 updates and guidance from the California Department of Public Health.