When Santa Clara County students return to schools this fall, they will enter their campuses through designated, supervised routes. Elementary school students will stay in the same classroom with the same teacher for the entire school day. Middle and high schoolers will be required to wear face masks inside and outside of the classroom. All students and staff must be screened for COVID-19 symptoms daily. There will be no choir, band or cheerleading.
These are among the requirements the Santa Clara County Public Health Department released on Tuesday for reopening K-12 public, private and charter schools. The 23-page document, which was developed in partnership with the County Office of Education, works to balance two competing interests: the benefits of in-person instruction and the potential health risks of offering it.
"We know that distance learning is not an equal substitute for in-person education," Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan said during a press conference on Tuesday. "We encourage the implementation of an education model that recognizes that in-person instruction is essential to supporting the academic and social development milestones that are crucial to academic progress."
The guidance includes both mandates and recommendations for schools and "was designed to provide clear direction while allowing schools appropriate flexibility based on their own constraints and resources," it states.
The county acknowledges that reopening campuses is dependent on local public health conditions, including the number of current COVID-19 cases and the degree to which schools are contributing to the spread of the coronavirus in the community. Schools are also being asked to prepare for the possibilities of a hybrid model that includes distance learning and either a temporary or long-term return to fully remote teaching and learning.
But the message to local schools is to plan for in-person education "to the maximum extent practicable," Dewan said.
The county guidance notes that school closures disproportionately harm disadvantaged students who might not have access to technology or internet service at home or whose parents are essential workers.
"School closures magnify socioeconomic, racial and other inequities among students," the guidance states. "Disruption of normal childhood social interactions also have a profound adverse impact on students' social and emotional well-being."
Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Sara Cody said the guidelines were informed by an evolving understanding of the role children play in transmission of the coronavirus, including that children are less likely to spread the virus to each other as well as to adults. It's more likely that an adult would spread the virus to a child, Cody said during the press conference. COVID-19 disease prevalence is also lower among children than in adults.
"Young children aren't the engines of transmission as they are with flu," she said.
Teenagers, however, are thought to transmit the coronavirus more similarly to adults, meaning the county's guidance for middle and high schools is different than for elementary schools.
The public health department will require elementary school students to stay in "stable cohorts" with the same classmates and teachers for the entire school day. The direction acknowledges that it's less feasible for young children to wear face masks and always adhere to social distancing to minimize the risk of spread, Cody said. There is also a "greater need" for in-person interaction with younger students, the guidance states.
It is recommended but not required to have stable cohorts of students at the middle and high schools, which could include rotating teachers into classrooms to teach different subjects.
Classrooms at all levels will have teachers' and staff's desks at least 6 feet away from students. Students will have assigned seating to "ensure that close contacts within classrooms are minimized and easily identifiable," the guidance states.
All adults must wear a face covering at all times, except while eating or drinking. Students of all grade levels will be required to wear masks while arriving and leaving schools, in any area outside of the classroom (except when eating, drinking, or engaging in physical activity) and while waiting for or riding on a school bus.
Elementary school students won't be required to wear masks in the classroom but middle and high schoolers will, even if they're in stable cohorts.
The county also recommends staggered use of restrooms, libraries and playgrounds. Meals should be served in classrooms or outdoor spaces, the guidance suggests but doesn't require.
PE classes should take place outdoors "whenever possible" with social distancing, though students won't have to wear masks during exercise. Guidance on school athletics is forthcoming.
The public health guidance is requiring symptom screenings — not just temperature checks — which parents can do with their children at home before going to school. Cody said a visual symptom check is "much more likely to identify a student or staff member who may be ill." Symptom screenings do not need to be performed by a nurse or other health professional.
Public health and elected officials emphasized on Tuesday that the reopening of schools is dependent on a collective commitment to reducing the spread of the coronavirus through the wearing of masks, social distancing, limiting interaction with people outside of one's household and frequent hand-washing.
"The virus has done a great job adapting to us and moving in stealth fashion though our community. It is up to us to adapt to this virus and do everything possible to suppress the levels," Cody said. "The better that we do that, the more sure we can be that schools can safely reopen for in-person learning."
Shortly after Santa Clara County released the schools guidance Tuesday, the Palo Alto school district published its own plan for reopening schools in August. The district will bring elementary school students back to campuses in two alternating cohorts, while middle and high school students will primarily learn online but go to school in person for small-group activities.
Superintendent Don Austin said the county public health department's guidelines were mostly expected.
"I don't think there is anything in there that was a real surprise or creates any barriers for us that we weren't already planning to deal with," he said.
The district plan is subject to approval by the school board, which will discuss it at a special meeting on Wednesday, July 1, at 6 p.m.
The public can access the meeting via Zoom by going to https://pausd.zoom.us/j/94835656660 or by calling 669-900-6833 (enter Webinar ID: 948 3565 6660, then press #). If asked for a participant ID or code, press #.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.