State gives more details for how San Diego County elementary schools can reopen

A gate is locked at a closed elementary school in Los Angeles.
FILE - In this July 13, 2020, file photo, a gate is locked at the closed Ranchito Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles. As Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled details for California elementary schools seeking to reopen with in-person instruction amid the coronavirus pandemic, one of the state’s two powerful teachers unions warned that reopening schools would be “a major mistake.” (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

Schools will have to detail their plans for testing students, staff for COVID and triggers for returning to distance learning


New criteria for state waivers mean elementary schools in San Diego County can apply for a chance to reopen, despite the state’s mandate that schools in counties struggling with COVID-19 offer online education only.

The news gives some hope to parents who want their young children back in school, but it also lays out several requirements schools must meet to reopen.

The state’s mandate says all public and private schools must remain closed in counties like San Diego that are on the state COVID watch list, until they get off the list for two consecutive weeks.

San Diego is among 37 counties on the watch list.

Recently elementary schools learned they can apply for waivers from this mandate and reopen. The waivers would come from county health departments.

Initially the state’s criteria for the waivers was not specific. Monday evening, Aug. 3, the state released more detailed criteria and a waiver application form for schools to complete.

The state says elementary schools can apply only if they are in a county with a COVID-19 case rate at or below 200 per 100,000 people.

San Diego’s current rate is 134.2 per 100,000, so schools here and in most counties on the state watch list can apply. Los Angeles is one of the counties that cannot apply.

Schools can only apply to reopen for transitional kindergarten through sixth grade. Several studies have suggested that young children are less likely to transmit COVID than older children, teens and adults.

No schools in San Diego County have applied yet, but San Diego County Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten said Tuesday, Aug. 4, she expects many will.

The Rancho Santa Fe School District will also pursue a waiver to reopen in-person school this fall. RSF School Superintendent Donna Tripi and the RSF School board believe that with their comprehensive reopening plan that follows the state guidelines, they are able to do everything they can to keep students and staff safe.

The Cajon Valley Union School District and the Diocese of San Diego are among those who have said they plan to apply.

Applicant schools must show they have consulted with — but not necessarily gotten the approval of — parent and community groups, as well as staff. School districts and schools that have labor unions also must consult with them.

Elementary schools also have to post reopening plans on their websites. The plans must follow state guidance and address several topics, such as keeping students in the same small groups each day, having students and staff wear masks, physical distancing, testing students and staff for COVID-19, and setting triggers for reverting to distance learning if someone at school gets the virus.

The county also will have to consider health data, such as the rate of new COVID-19 cases, percentages of positive COVID-19 tests and hospitalization trends in communities.

The state criteria do not say what levels those data should be at for a school to get a waiver.

The county also must consider the availability of COVID-19 testing and the school’s ability to investigate and respond to COVID-19 cases.

The county must notify the state health department about each application. The state has three days to ask questions or relay concerns before a county approves or denies an application.

The county can attach conditions to the approval of a waiver, such as requiring that elementary schools reopen in phases.

Schools have to apply at least two weeks before they want to open.

Overall, San Diego County’s progress in getting off the state’s coronavirus watch list has been mixed in recent days.

The county’s case rate was declining as of last weekend, when the rate was at 120.4 per 100,000 people. But the rate jumped to 134.2 as of Tuesday, Aug. 4.

The county needs to keep the rate at 100 or below for two consecutive weeks in order for all schools to reopen.

To achieve that, San Diego County would have to report 240 or fewer new coronavirus cases daily, for two weeks straight, Wooten said. It reported 290 new COVID-19 cases and three more deaths Tuesday, Aug. 4.

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