San Diego County schools banned from reopening until COVID-19 numbers improve

Maria Limas (right) leads children back to the classroom at Chase Avenue Elementary School May 5 in El Cajon.
Maria Limas (right) leads children back to the classroom after an outside break at Chase Avenue Elementary School during the Cajon Valley Union School District’s Emergency Child Care Program on May 5 in El Cajon. The district was one of the first in the state to bring students back to campus.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The state has banned all public and private schools in San Diego County and most other California counties from holding in-person classes until the counties do a better job of containing the coronavirus.

The decision announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom Friday, July 17, overturns the plans of many local school systems that were forging ahead with reopening next month despite the recent surge in COVID-19 cases.

Poway Unified, Grossmont Union High, Cajon Valley Union, Santee, Del Mar Union, Alpine Union, Lakeside Union school districts, as well as several San Diego Catholic schools, were planning to reopen for at least part-time, in-person school.

Poway and Cajon Valley have already been holding in-person summer learning programs on campus and said they have done so successfully with safety measures. San Diego County’s health order has allowed schools to hold classes in-person since mid-June.

Many of those districts said they wanted to reopen despite the COVID-19 surge because that’s what parents want.

“Our community overwhelmingly wants to do it, and we feel we’ve really done everything to put health and safety protocols in place,” said Rich Newman, Alpine Union’s superintendent, in an interview Thursday, July 16.

The mandated school closures apply to all counties on the state’s monitoring list, which includes 32 of the state’s 58 counties.

According to Newsom’s order, schools can physically open for in-person education when the county has been off the monitoring list for 14 consecutive days. San Diego County has been on the list since July 3 because it has a case rate greater than 100 per 100,000 people three days in a row; the county’s rate is currently 145.3.

When schools do reopen, all students in grades 3 and up will have to wear masks while on campus, Newsom announced Friday, July 17. Newsom said students in lower grades would be encouraged, but not required, to wear masks.

Some school districts in San Diego County, including Poway Unified and Del Mar Union, have been planning to only encourage students to wear masks, not require them.

Currently, students of San Diego County schools in all grades would have to wear masks on campus, according to the San Diego County Office of Education’s interpretation of San Diego County’s current health order. The order requires everyone ages 2 and older to wear a face covering when they leave their home, and the order does not exempt schools from that requirement, a county education office spokeswoman said in an email Wednesday, July 15.

School staff must be tested regularly for the virus and they must keep a six-foot distance from students and other staff, Newsom said.

Newsom also announced requirements specifying when schools should close if a student or staff member tests positive for the virus while in-person classes are in session.

A school classroom would be closed if a student or teacher tests positive, and an entire school would close if multiple student cohorts or 5 percent of its students and teachers test positive. A school district would have to close if a quarter of its schools close within a 14-day period.

The new state mandates are some of the first detailed, concrete directions for how schools should reopen. They represent a significant assertion of state authority over schools, which have until this point had the freedom to decide whether they open or close. In March, even as Newsom enacted a stay-at-home order for Californians, he did not order school closures, although the vast majority of California schools closed voluntarily.

Newsom’s announcement comes four days after San Diego Unified and Los Angeles Unified, the state’s two largest districts, made a high-profile joint announcement that they will start school next month online only out of concerns for safety. Other large school districts that have already decided to start the school year online include Escondido Union High, Chula Vista Elementary and Sweetwater Union High.

San Diego Unified leaders said they halted their plans to bring students back to school not just because of the surge in COVID-19 cases, but because there is inadequate testing and there was a lack of clear guidelines from health officials about what levels of COVID-19 testing and infection rates need to be reached before it is safe for schools to reopen.

“It’s really not a difficult decision. It’s an obvious decision. It’s just not safe to do it,” said Richard Barrera, vice president of the San Diego Unified School Board, in an interview Thursday.

But other school districts have said they believe they can prevent the spread of coronavirus on their campuses if they reopen.

Cajon Valley, which has been providing in-person, free child care to essential workers since late April, said it has not had a student or staff member test positive for COVID-19, to its knowledge.

“Cajon Valley is proving that with strict adherence to public health guidelines, appreciation and respect for one another’s safety, and careful planning and execution, that schools can both reopen safely and provide the laughter and learning that our children and teachers are accustomed to,” the district said in a press release this week.

As long as students are not attending school in-person, learning loss will continue to accumulate even with a robust online learning program, and students’ social and emotional health will suffer, Barrera said.

In this way, children’s education is becoming one casualty of California’s inability to contain the virus, he said.

“We all have individual responsibilities in this, and I think maybe it’s becoming clearer now that one of the big consequences of us not acting responsibly as individuals is it compromises the ability of students to go to school,” Barrera said.

— Kristen Taketa is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune