The California Department of Education released on Monday much-anticipated guidance for reopening schools this fall, with officials emphasizing that the document is not meant to be a mandate for local school districts.
The 62-page document covers in detail everything from personal protective equipment for teachers and staggered schedules to seating assignments on school buses. It was compiled with guidance from public health experts and educational leaders, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, California Department of Public Health, California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, a statewide reopening schools task force and focus groups with educators and health officials.
"We recognize that COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on everything that we know about providing an education," state Superintendent Tony Thurmond said in a virtual press conference on June 8. "It forces us to enter into new conversation about the way educational programming looks and will look going forward."
The California Department of Education is leaving it to school districts, in collaboration with local public health officials, to decide the specifics of when to reopen. The state guidance also will likely be adjusted as more information becomes available, Thurmond said.
The guidance focuses heavily on physical distancing in classrooms and school campuses and recommends creating smaller cohorts of students who are on campus at any given time. Many California school districts, including Palo Alto Unified, are planning for a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning. Thurmond said his department will be asking county superintendents to gather information from their local districts on the ratio of face-to-face and remote learning. School officials will be asked to "analyze their campus through the lens of 6 feet" to determine how many students and staff can safely be on a campus at the same time.
Thurmond said districts across the state are repurposing cafeterias, gyms and outdoor areas to use for socially distanced instruction.
To ease distancing and capacity at schools, he encouraged districts to accommodate requests from parents who want to keep their children at home and learning remotely.
"We are not saying or mandating that anyone be in distance learning. We are simply saying districts accommodate what they can," Thurmond said.
In a survey the Palo Alto school district conducted in late May, 25% of respondents said they would prefer distance learning in the fall.
"We will be formally asking families to determine if they truly wish for online options or if they prefer face-to-face interaction with a hybrid (some physically in front of a teacher and some online) system," Superintendent Don Austin wrote in a message about reopening to staff and families on Monday.
In an interview, he said these responses from families will "inform our next steps more than the guidelines did today."
He's more concerned with what the Santa Clara County Department of Public Health will say about reopening schools, guidance he anticipates will be more restrictive than the state's. Palo Alto Unified is exploring giving students and families the option of taking some courses online and some in-person, he said. The district is in the midst of negotiating with its unions for a vastly different work environment in the fall.
The state recommends that districts have plans in place to close schools again and return to full distance learning if necessary due to local public health conditions. Thurmond said schools should prepare for the "likelihood" of this happening.
Teachers and staff should be required to wear face coverings while on campus, the guidance says, which can include face shields to "enable students to see their faces and to avoid potential barriers to phonological instruction." Classified staff who are tasked with deep cleaning should also "be equipped with proper PPE for COVID-19 disinfection," including disposable gown, gloves, eye protection and a mask or respirator, the guidance states.
If a school district requires students to wear face coverings, it must provide them, the state recommends. Districts should consider how to address this with students with disabilities who might not want or be able to wear a mask, the guidance reads.
Schools should check staff and students for symptoms of the virus, including "visual wellness checks" and temperature checks using a no-touch thermometer. The state suggests districts purchase a "sufficient number" of no-touch thermal scan thermometers for such screenings. The state also suggests parents screen their children before going to school each day.
The "biggest challenge" school officials face, Thurmond said, is how districts will be able to pay for additional equipment and operational changes as the state faces a $54 billion deficit, with budget cuts on the horizon.
"In order to do these things, schools need to have lots of personal protective equipment. That means revenue from the state to support it. We acknowledge that there's a challenge right now, at least through the most recently proposed budget," he said, noting that the state Legislature proposed a budget last week that would restore education cuts.
Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan said Friday that local school staff and faculty still do not have the required amount of personal protective equipment necessary to reopen campuses to students. Dewan said the district would need both state and local assistance, not only in acquiring protective equipment but also in maintaining uncovered costs for certain educational programs and after-school child care as schools begin to reopen later this year.
Schools are also waiting to hear from the state about flexibility with instructional minutes requirements and federal funding for school meals, Thurmond said. His department is lobbying the U.S. Department of Agriculture to free up funding to reimburse districts providing meals to students.
The guidance includes lengthy sections on instruction, social-emotional learning, special education, assessment and early learning and care programs.
"The intent of this document is to be a guide for our local discussion in reopening schools and it honors that there is no one-size-fits-all solution as the context of each of our districts varies and is unique," said state Chief Deputy Superintendent Stephanie Gregson. "There are no mandates in this document."
Read the state's guidance for reopening schools here:
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.