Surging COVID-19 cases pushed three more counties into the most restrictive tier on the state’s tracking system on Tuesday, pausing school district plans to reopen.

Sacramento, San Diego and Stanislaus counties moved from red status, or Tier 2, to purple status, or Tier 1, after COVID-19 cases in the counties increased over two weeks. The status change doesn’t impact schools that already opened. But moving to purple can keep schools closed, at least until the rate of infections decrease.

In Sacramento County, three small districts now can not follow through with plans to reopen this month — River Delta Unified, a K-12 district of 2,040 students; Galt Joint Union Elementary School District, a district of 3,546 students; and Elverta Joint Elementary School District, a K-8 district of 300 students.

Two large districts — Natomas Unified and Elk Grove Unified — had more tentative plans to reopen if COVID-19 infection rates went down. Elk Grove Unified, the fifth largest district in the state, announced it would reopen campuses for pre-K to third grade on Nov. 17, but only if the county was in the Tier 3, or orange status, which indicates that there is moderate spread of the virus in the county. Natomas Unified officials also wanted to reopen school in November, but only if infection rates dropped.

Elementary school waivers

Districts can still reopen elementary schools if they apply for waivers from their county department of health, said Sacramento County Superintendent Dave Gordon. Waivers are only given to K-6 students, even in California schools that include other grades, according to the California Department of Health.

“Districts all have paid very close attention and worked with public health officials,” Gordon said. “We have a good relationship with Sacramento Public Health. My guess is they would meet the criteria that public health has set forward.”

The California Department of Public Health website shows that, so far, mostly private schools have been granted waivers to reopen in Sacramento County.

Two of the county’s school districts reopened their campuses just the day before Sacramento County moved into the more restrictive status. Arcohe Union Elementary School District, a one-school K-8 district of 457 students; and Folsom Cordova Unified School District, which has 20,605 students, both opened Monday.

Back to class on Thursday for some kids

Folsom Cordova Unified elementary school students will actually return to classes Thursday, but the schools were open for a teacher workday on Tuesday, which counts as being reopened, Gordon said.

The schools reopened just in time, said Angela Griffith Ankhelyi, director of communications for the district. “We couldn’t have predicted what the county or environment would do. We were simply moving forward with our plans.”

On Thursday, the district will have 4,900 elementary students back on campuses two days a week and in distance learning two days a week.

The district’s plans had included a return to school for middle school students at the end of the month, but at the school board decided last week to push back their return until Jan. 4. High school students also are expected to return to school that day if COVID-19 rates fall.

The announcement Tuesday impacted only a few San Diego County schools as most school campuses have reopened. Two school districts in San Diego County that had planned on reopening for in-person instruction this month will no longer be able to: La Mesa-Spring Valley Unified and Fallbrook Union High.

La Mesa-Spring Valley Unified, which serves around 12,000 students, was planning on beginning to offer in-person instruction to most of its students Nov. 30, said Superintendent David Feliciano. But given San Diego County’s status change, that plan has been pushed back to around January, he said.

“We definitely have parents who want to get kids back to school, no question, but we also have parents who are very concerned and were watching the county’s case rate very closely,” Feliciano said. “We just posted our update today on the fact that we won’t be able to reopen. I expect to hear from parents who applaud the fact that it will be a longer wait and other parents who are very upset and wish that we would have opened sooner.”

Though San Diego County moved to the red tier in October, allowing districts to plan to offer more robust in-person instruction, La Mesa-Spring Valley Unified held off, Feliciano said, since several staff members and community members were impacted by a COVID-19 outbreak at San Diego State University.

COVID-19 testing for school staff

Schools that were already offering in-person instruction in those counties can continue to do so, but they must increase COVID-19 testing for staff, according to state guidance.

The state recommends that all schools that are open for in-person instruction test staff once every two months, or 25% of staff every two weeks. A school in a county that moves back into the purple tier should exceed this.

All schools are required to close when at least 5% of staff and students test positive for COVID-19 within a 14-day period. School districts must close if one-quarter of schools in the districts are closed due to COVID-19 cases. Schools can usually reopen within 14 days after campuses have been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, public health contact tracing is completed and the county public health department has given its approval.

Several other counties moved to more restrictive tiers Tuesday; no counties advanced. Amador, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Placer and Santa Cruz counties moved from the orange, or “moderate” tier back to the red tier. Modoc, Siskiyou and Trinity counties moved from the yellow, or “minimal” tier to orange.

Story originally published by EdSource.