California issues guidelines for school reopening waivers

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — California health officials released guidelines Monday for elementary schools to seek waivers that would allow them to offer classroom instruction but recommended that local health officials not even consider that option in counties with the highest rates of coronavirus infection.

The state Department of Public Health released the guidelines for public, private and charter schools seeking permission from local health officers to resume in-person instruction if they are located in one of 38 counties that remain on a state watch list because of troubling COVID-19 increases.

Those counties contain most of the state’s population.

The waivers only apply for kindergarten to sixth grade because health officials say those students are less likely than older children to become infected or transmit coronavirus.

However, the state says districts shouldn’t be considered for waivers if their counties have had more than 200 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people over two weeks. There currently are 14 counties in this category, including Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino, with several others just below the threshold.

California schools closed down in mid-March as the coronavirus surged. Some larger districts struggled to provide off-campus instruction for their students but parents and teachers have voiced safety concerns about returning to classrooms in the midst of the pandemic.

Among other things, the state’s guidelines say schools seeking waivers must have support from labor, parent and community organizations.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest district with nearly 735,000 students, already has announced it will start the school year with only distance learning in two weeks. The district announced it had hammered out a tentative agreement with its teachers’ union on how distance learning will be carried out that includes set school hours online.

However, the district also has plans for providing at least some classroom instruction if it receives a waiver.

“Our goal is to have students back in schools as soon as it is safe and appropriate to do so,” district Superintendent Austin Beutner said Monday.

The state guidelines say reopening plans must cover a raft of safety issues, from cleaning and disinfecting to health screenings, social distancing and mask-wearing for staff and students. The ability to keep children in “small, stable” groups should be one qualification, according to the guidelines.

“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,” Dr. Sonia Angell, the state’s public health officer and head of the public health department, said in a statement. “Today’s guidance ensures that critical public health measures are in place to reduce risk in a number of educational and youth settings.”

California also issued guidelines Monday for youth sports programs that effectively bar competitions, tournaments and assemblies by school teams and club and recreational teams.

The concern is that they require close contact or promote congregating among young people, parents and coaches.

Practices and conditioning will be limited and ideally should be held outdoors, the guidelines state. Permitted exercises are for building individual skills, such as running drills and body-weight exercises.

Last month, the California Interscholastic Federation, which governs high school athletics, announced that the fall sports season would be pushed back to 2021.

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