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It’s back-to-school season, though what that looks like depends on where a student lives.
For the many students at schools in counties on the state’s COVID-19 watchlist, classes are required to be online for now. That’s the result of a July 17 announcement from Governor Gavin Newsom.
But in that announcement, there was a small footnote that could allow some elementary schools to reopen. Here it is in full:
A waiver of this criteria may be granted by the local health officer for elementary schools to open for in-person instruction. A waiver may only be granted if one is requested by the superintendent (or equivalent for charter or private schools), in consultation with labor, parent and community organizations. Local health officers must review local community epidemiological data, consider other public health interventions, and consult with CDPH when considering a waiver request.
It described a process where elementary schools with safety plans can apply for waivers to reopen their campuses, even if their county is still on the state’s COVID-19 watchlist.
Long story short: the waivers only apply to approved elementary schools, in part because the state believes distance learning is especially challenging for young learners. The district — or school leadership in the case of charter and private schools — has to get approval from the local health officer. And the local health officer has to consult with the California Department of Public Health as part of the process.
A few weeks later, the California Department of Public Health laid out how that would work. And it added a big caveat:
CDPH recommends that schools within jurisdictions with 14-day case rates more than two times the threshold to be on the County Monitoring List (>200 cases/100,000 population) should not be considered for a waiver to re-open in-person instruction.
So, given all of this, which schools and districts are actually applying for these waivers in Southern California?
Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties are not currently considering waiver applications, citing the high COVID-19 case rate, while in Orange County, the Health Care Agency had received more than 50 applications from private, independent, or faith-based schools as of August 12. That same day, Orange County Acting Health Officer Clayton Chau said in an email that approvals are “on hold for now,” given issues with the state’s data reporting system.
Public school districts that have been in touch with Orange County public health officials say they will delay filing any waiver requests until that data issue is resolved, according to Chau.
We made a map of applicants we know about through public records requests and individual tips from readers and listeners. If you click on a school, you can learn more about what type of school it is and the documents it submitted for consideration.
Below that — we look at each individual county’s process and plan for considering the waivers.
If you know of a school or district that has applied that we do not yet have marked on this map, please let us know.
We’ll continue to update this post and the maps as we learn more about the waiver process. If you have information you’d like to share with us, you can email reporter Carla Javier.
During an August 10 press conference, Newsom said because of its size and diversity, Orange County was a “perfect poster child for exactly the kind of nuance that needs to be considered as it relates to … waiver strategy.”
On August 7, Acting Health Officer Chau told reporters that while the Orange County Health Care Agency is accepting waiver applications, it has also been calling applicants to let them know “that the process of the conversation can’t start until we know what our community case rate is,” pointing to a past glitch with the state’s data reporting system.
Chau promised that the agency would post the names of schools and districts that have been approved for these waivers. But so far, none have been approved, so that site is not live.
So we are making public records requests for the data, and the map above reflects the applications received by the Health Care Agency as of August 12.
An interesting pattern emerges. As we noted above, more than 50 of the applicants interested in waivers from the Orange County Health Care Agency self-identified as private, independent, or faith-based schools. Meanwhile, the county’s largest districts, including Capistrano Unified and Santa Ana Unified, will begin the school year with distance learning. As of our August 12 public records request, the Health Care Agency had not received a waiver application from a public school district.
As part of the process for applying for a waiver in Orange County, the local education agency applying must post its own copy of its waiver application on its website. So if you go to the map above and click on an Orange County school, you can learn more about each school and read completed waiver applications and safety plans.
LOS ANGELES COUNTY
On August 4, the L.A. County Department of Public Health announced it will not grant reopening waivers until the county case rate is below the threshold set by the state Department of Public Health (200 cases per 100,000 residents).
A week later, Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer was asked when she believes the county will meet that requirement. She said she didn’t know when it would be possible, but that she does believe it is possible.
“I would be hopeful that we work really hard, everybody does their part, and we get closer to October and the rate has really come down, but I don’t have a crystal ball,” Ferrer said. “I can just look at what’s happened in other places across our country and across the world, and suggest that with a really concerted effort that rate has come down and come down significantly. I think we can do that here.”
Los Angeles County Department of Public Health announces that, for now, it will NOT consider requests for waivers to reopen elementary schools.
Why? Look at the guidance from the California Department of Public Health ⬇️
In an August 5 memo to public and private school leaders, Riverside County Public Health Officer Cameron Kaiser pointed to the ongoing issues with the state’s reporting system that left the county’s case rate “frozen” just above the state’s threshold for considering these waivers, at 202 per 100,000 residents.
As a result, Kaiser asked school leaders in the county to hold off on submitting applications until “the case rate issue is resolved and below the state benchmark.”
SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY
A spokesperson for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health explained in an email that the county was also over the threshold set by the state, while also acknowledging “there may be some unique circumstances in the county’s very large and diverse county that may warrant consideration for a waiver.”
So technically, schools and districts can still apply for the waiver.
In a packet dated August 4, San Bernardino County Interim Health Officer Erin Gustafson explained the process the county will use to consider waiver applications.
According to guidance from the Ventura County Department of Public Health, the county is not currently accepting applications for waivers.
That being said, the department did lay out the process to allow schools and districts to prepare for whenever the county does decide to accept these applications.