Newsom orders virtual instruction in most California counties
SACRAMENTO — California Gov. Gavin Newsom laid out new rules Friday that will require schools in counties with high rates of coronavirus infections to keep campuses closed until they can meet certain public health standards, the broadest move yet in the U.S. to mandate virtual learning for the fall.
Schools located in counties that are on the state’s coronavirus watch list must not physically open for instruction until they have cleared several public health benchmarks for 14 consecutive days. As of Friday, 32 of California’s 58 counties were on the state’s watch list, including most of Southern California, the Central Valley, Sacramento region and Bay Area.
About 80 percent of California’s population lives in a watch list county. The order applies to all schools, including private and charter programs that might have been planning to run in-person classes.
The move defies President Donald Trump’s efforts to reopen campuses for the fall and comes amid growing concerns expressed by teachers and families. It also overrides efforts in areas such as Orange County, where the board of education this week recommended that students return to classrooms without masks. And Clovis Unified, a district in Fresno County, can no longer open five days a week as planned.
But large California districts had already made plans to start the school year with distance learning, starting with the state’s two largest in Los Angeles and San Diego. That touched off a cascade of other campus closure announcements, including all districts in Sacramento County. Trump later blasted the closure decision by Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second largest district, as a “terrible decision.”
Newsom said at a news conference Friday that he “recognizes the president’s insistence from an economic paradigm” regarding schools reopening but noted concerns about teachers’ health and the unknowns surrounding childhood transmission of the virus.
“I’m not looking to score cheap political points with people that have different points of view,” Newsom said. “I respect and appreciative this dialectic, this conversation we’re having.”
For schools that do reopen, all staff, as well as students in the third grade and above will be required to wear a face covering. An official in the Newsom administration told POLITICO Friday that California is the first state to take school mask enforcement further and will exclude students from schools if they refuse to wear a mask and force them to partake in distance learning instead.
Teachers in schools able to reopen will be routinely provided coronavirus testing by their districts. Schools must physically close and return to distance learning if at least 5 percent of students and staff test positive for the virus within a two-week period, under the new requirements. Entire districts must close if 25 percent or more of its schools have been closed due to Covid-19 for two weeks.
The California Teachers Association said Friday that some of the guidance remains confusing for districts, and that more school funding to support both distance learning and attempts at socially distant classrooms is needed. But, overall, the union applauded the governor for setting statewide standards.
“Today’s updated guidance from Governor Newsom through the California Department of Public Health is a good step in providing some clarity and uniformity across the state. We cannot reopen schools unless it is safe,” CTA President E. Toby Boyd said in a statement.
The news comes as the CTA has ramped up demands to prolong distance learning as the state is slammed by a surge in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations. It marks a significant shift from Newsom’s deference to local control, though he is allowing county health officers to provide waivers to elementary schools if requested by a superintendent, labor unions and other community members.
Newsom has been criticized by education groups for not providing clear mandates for reopening until now, instead issuing recommendations and “guidelines” but ultimately leaving it up to local superintendents.
“By following the lead of many school districts that opted to begin the new school year with distance learning, the governor has provided needed clarity on when schools might resume on-campus instruction and when they should close schools because of the virus,” California School Boards Association CEO and Executive Director Vernon Billy said in a statement. “And while we think the governor’s new guidance may provide more clarity for local educational agencies, it also establishes a number of new criteria that may generate additional implementation questions and concerns.”
California was an early model for the nation for controlling the spread of Covid-19. But the state has seen a surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths over the past month following a broad reopening effort that allowed everything from bars to movie theaters to operate. Newsom on Monday shut down some of the riskiest indoor sectors in new closure orders.
Some Republican lawmakers have decried the schools decision, though, calling it a government overreach and a violation of the constitutional guarantees of an equal education.
“The deck has been stacked against local officials in recent weeks as politics and special interests, not science, have driven school closures,” Assemblymember Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) said in a statement Friday. “Today’s decision elevates the appearance of safety over actual student safety. A growing body of evidence suggests school closures do little to flatten the epidemic curve, while an abundance of evidence shows they are a calamity for kids.”