The California Department of Public Health on Tuesday published rules for opening school campuses to small numbers of students with disabilities and other students who need in-person support and services that can’t be met through distance learning.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, announced two weeks ago the policy for opening up schools to students with “acute” needs, even in counties where all districts are closed because of high incidences of the coronavirus. Districts had been waiting for state guidance on how the policy would work.

One question the rules won’t answer is whether there will be enough teachers and staff members willing to go back to school amid continuing safety concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. The rules make no mention of whether districts will need the express permission of employee unions to bring back some teachers and what would happen if unions discourage teachers from returning. The Newsom administration is letting local unions and districts decide those issues. It is unclear whether the guidance will simply enable districts to ask teachers to return to the classroom or create an expectation for them to do so.

In a statement, the California Teachers Association was ambiguous about guidance. “The small cohort approach is a good direction, but it should be an approach that is considered when the community conditions are safe, and where a low COVID-19 threshold has been reached in communities and counties as established by the state,” wrote Claudia Briggs, CTA’s communications assistant manager. “The ever-changing guidance is starting to create a yo-yo effect that makes it hard for districts, educators and parents to plan and stay the course for instruction. Districts should stay focused on their current opening plans and on robust distance learning programs for this semester. The guidance raises questions around mixing of grades in cohorts and should include testing and contact tracing plans.

“It’s important that this will also need to be agreed upon by working with educators and parents as part of all school reopening plans,” she said.

Strict rules on social distancing

The one-page guidance requires that students stay separated in cohorts with a maximum of 14 children and two supervising adults. The cohorts must have no contact with other students, adults and other cohorts throughout the day, and adults should be assigned to only one group. Outdoor and other activities should be staggered to prevent mingling.

The new rules apply to public and private schools, licensed and license-exempt child care settings, “distance learning hubs” and other supervised care environments, recreation programs, before and after school programs, youth groups and day camps. However, the guidance notes in bold print that previous rules applying to those programs and settings, such as adult-to-child ratios for licensed child care programs, continue to apply.

The guidance doesn’t specify which students would be eligible, although an accompanying Frequently Asked Questions document states that students with disabilities should be prioritized and English learners, students at higher risk of further learning loss or not participating in distance learning, students at risk of abuse or neglect, foster youth and students experiencing homelessness can be priority groups. They could receive tutoring, counseling, social and emotional services and other help to fully participate in distance learning.

The FAQ also says that the size of the building and school enrollment will determine the maximum number of cohorts and that the number of returning students should not exceed 25% of total enrollment.

Mixed emotions for special ed teachers 

In comments to EdSource articles, some special education teachers have expressed eagerness to return to school early, while others expressed anxiety about working closely with high-needs students who cannot wear masks and require constant physical contact.

“My students will follow none of the safety precautions. They don’t understand they need to cover their mouth when they sneeze and cough. If it’s not safe for regular ed teachers then it definitely is not safe for special ed teachers,” wrote “Kay,” who said she teaches autistic children and children with moderate and severe disabilities.

“There are students for whom distance learning simply will not work, but who’s to doubt special education teachers who believe they will be in harm’s way?” said Kevin Gordon, president of Capitol Advisors Group, an education consulting firm. “Teamwork between districts and teachers will be the watchword.”

Other requirements and considerations in the guidance include:

  • Substitute teachers and providers can work with only one cohort of children per day.
  • Physical distancing between adults must be maintained as much as possible, and adults and students must use face coverings at all times, in line with previous state guidance.
  • Physical distancing between young children in the same cohort “should be balanced with developmental and socio-emotional needs of this age group.”
  • One-to-one specialized services, such as occupational and therapy, and educational supports, can be provided by a service provider that is not part of the child’s cohort.

Story originally published by EdSource.