San Diego judge’s ruling, new CDC distancing guidelines offer schools more reopening freedom

McAuliffe Elementary fifth graders are separated by plexiglass between tables in Oceanside Unified.
McAuliffe Elementary School fifth grade students are separated by pieces of plexiglass during their first day back to school on March 15 in Oceanside Unified.
(Don Boomer/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The judge and new CDC guidance also suggest state’s four-feet distance requirement in classrooms is not needed


A San Diego County judge’s ruling this week allows all California schools, not just elementary schools, the chance to reopen during the purple tier if a county’s case rate is at 25 or less per 100,000 residents.

San Diego school districts also may offer more days a week of in-person instruction after the San Diego judge and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued statements this week that schools can have less spacing between students than the state currently requires in classrooms.

The judge’s ruling was hailed by parents who want schools to reopen as a step toward full-time in-person instruction, rather than just part-time hybrid instruction. Parents have argued that the state’s 4-foot distance rule has prevented school districts from offering more days of in-person instruction to students, particularly in middle and high schools.

“The elimination of the four-foot distancing rule, although seemingly minor, has significant implications to every school district in the state,” the Parent Association of North County San Diego, which pushed for reopening of schools, said in a statement Friday, March 19. “By eliminating this restriction, secondary schools have the discretion to arrange classrooms in a way that makes sense and allows for all students to return to campus for in-person instruction, as school districts are required to under the state Education Code.”

Last month, parents who are involved with the Parent Association sued Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state leaders, saying the state’s framework of rules governing school reopening is arbitrary and unfairly denies families their right to in-person instruction, causing their children academic and psychological harm.

Earlier this week San Diego County Judge Cynthia Freeland agreed with them, granting parents a temporary restraining order that blocks the state’s reopening framework. However, there was uncertainty about whether Freeland’s restraining order nullified school reopening rules for all schools statewide or just San Diego County schools.

On Wednesday, March 17, Freeland issued a revised ruling clarifying that her restraining order applies to all schools statewide.

Freeland also clarified that she was not striking down the state’s entire school reopening framework, which includes such widely accepted safety rules as requiring masks for students and staff and ensuring sufficient ventilation in classrooms.

The specific state rules Freeland is striking down are:

  • The requirement that student seats be kept at least 4 feet apart in classrooms.
  • The state’s definition of “reopen for in-person instruction” that had forced some districts to cancel reopening plans in January, when San Diego was in the purple tier.
  • The different reopening rules for elementary schools compared to middle and high schools. The state framework kept secondary schools closed during the purple tier but allowed elementary schools to open through a waiver process if a local case rate was 25 or less per 100,000 residents.

The state’s 4-foot distancing rule was meant to prevent COVID spread in classrooms. The state also set different reopening rules for secondary schools because experts believe younger children are less likely to get seriously sick from COVID and may spread COVID less than adults do.

But Freeland said state officials failed to adequately justify in court why a 4-foot distance was required.

She also said that the state’s evidence to justify different rules for elementary and secondary schools was insufficient and lacked specificity. She said differing rules have led to unconstitutional inequalities in the type and amount of education that students received.

Freeland ordered state officials to appear in court on April 1 to explain why these rules should not be struck down.

Currently, 11 California counties are in the purple tier. San Diego recently ascended to the red tier, so all schools here are allowed to reopen.

“California has and will continue to accelerate the safe reopening of schools — by increasing access to vaccines for school staff, ensuring ample resources to implement comprehensive safety measures, and reducing COVID-19 transmission rates,” California Health and Human Services spokesman Rodger Butler said in an email.

“Because of progress we’ve made across each of these fronts, all schools throughout San Diego County can reopen now. As we learn more about the consequences of the judge’s decision, nothing will distract from our collective goal to reopen schools both quickly and safely.”

On Friday, March 19, the CDC announced new national guidance recommending that schools need only 3 feet of distance between students in classrooms, not the 6 feet it had previously recommended — as long as students wear masks.

The main exception is for middle and high school students in communities where transmission is high; those students must remain 6 feet apart if schools can’t prevent mixing of students between classrooms. There also should be 6 feet of distance in common areas, between adults, when masks can’t be worn, and during activities with increased exhalation, such as singing or sports, the CDC said.

Butler said Friday, March 19, the state will issue updated guidance and planning resources in the coming days.

“State public health experts have been, along with the CDC, closely monitoring the emerging science on COVID-19 safety and schools, including the role of physical distancing,” he said.

Now, after the judge’s order and the revised CDC guidelines, some North County school districts are planning to offer more days of in-person instruction to middle and high schools.

Carlsbad Unified will discuss at its next board meeting Wednesday, March 24, expanding middle and high school from two days a week to five days a week on April 12, Superintendent Ben Churchill said.

San Dieguito Union High will expand in-person learning from one day a week to two days a week starting on Monday, March 22, Superintendent Robert Haley said.

Poway Unified is consulting with principals, union leaders and others on how to respond to the new CDC guidance, said spokeswoman Christine Paik.

The district already was planning to expand middle and high school instruction from one day a week to two days a week starting Monday. The Poway school board may announce another change at its board meeting on April 8, Paik said.

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