Students at Westside Neighborhood School in Los Angeles returned to school in October. (Photo by Amy Woropay, via EdSource)

Q: What is the color-coded county tracking system and how does it affect schools?

A: Gov. Gavin Newsom released the “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” on Aug. 28 that changed the way the state monitors counties to determine when schools can open for in-person instruction. However, its principal impact is on when businesses can reopen.

The blueprint includes a four-tiered, color-coded system that tracks counties by the number of COVID-19 cases recorded each day and the percentage of positive cases out of the total number of tests administered, both averaged over seven days. It went into effect Aug. 31, and replaced the previous “county monitoring list.” On Sept. 30, the California Department of Public Health released a new health equity metric that went into effect Oct. 6 and impacts a county’s ability to move between tiers.

Q: What do the colors stand for?

A: Purple, or Tier 1, indicates that the virus is widespread in the county — with more than seven cases per 100,000 residents or more than 8% of tests results reported positive over seven days. Red (Tier 2) indicates “substantial” spread of the virus, while orange (Tier 3) indicates “moderate” spread and yellow (Tier 4) indicates “minimal” spread of the virus in the county.

If one of the two metrics is higher than the other, the state will assign the county to the color associated with the highest rating. For example, if a county reports six cases per 100,000, but a 9% positivity rate, it will be rated purple.

No public or private schools in counties rated purple can reopen for in-person instruction unless they receive an elementary waiver for students in grades K-6 permitted under Gov. Newsom’s July 17 executive order, or are following guidance for small groups of children, known as “cohorts.” See below for counties that move into purple from red.

Counties that move from purple to red can open for in-person instruction after they have remained in the red tier for 14 days. However, some counties may have stricter rules in place prohibiting schools from opening.

Q: Which counties are rated purple and red?

A: When the tier system was first rolled out in August, 38 of the state’s 58 counties were rated purple, meaning that the virus was widespread, and schools could not offer in-person instruction to all of its students. Elementary schools in purple counties can apply for a waiver, but only if the daily infection rate in the county is between 7 and 14 per 100,000 residents.

The number of counties rated purple steadily decreased to nine between then and Oct. 27 but began to rise to 13 counties by Nov. 10 as the state saw a rise in COVID-19 cases. After a major surge in COVID-19 cases between Nov. 10 and Nov. 16, Newsom pulled an “emergency brake” and downgraded an additional 28 counties to purple, bringing the total to 41.

Counties rated purple as of Nov. 16: Alameda, Butte, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Fresno, Glenn, Kern, Kings, Mendocino, Merced, Napa, Nevada, Orange, Placer, San Benito, San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Siskiyou, Solano, Sutter, Trinity, Tuolumne, Ventura, Yolo, Yuba, Imperial, Los Angeles, Madera, Monterey, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, Shasta, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Tehama and Tulare.

These 41 counties include 863 districts, 1,237 charters and 5,821,648 students, which is 95.88% of the state’s total student body.

Counties rated red as of Nov. 16: Amador, Colusa, Del Norte, Marin, Modoc, Plumas, Humboldt, Mono, San Francisco and San Mateo. All of these counties have remained out of the purple tier for at least 14 consecutive days, meaning schools can open for in-person instruction.

Counties rated orange as of Nov. 16: Inyo, Lassen, Calaveras and Sierra.

Counties rated yellow as of Nov. 16: Alpine and Mariposa.

Schools in counties rated orange or yellow are free to reopen for in-person instruction based on modifications outlined in the state’s July 17 guidance and subsequent Aug. 3 guidance.

Q: If a school opens while its county is rated red, then the county moves back up to purple, does it have to close?

A: No. Schools that open while their county is rated red, but then move back up to purple may remain open, but must increase COVID-19 testing for staff. According to reopening guidance released July 17, “schools should begin testing staff, or increase frequency of staff testing but are not required to close” if cases or positivity rates increase countywide.

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 14 days. 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.

Q. Can elementary schools in counties rated purple apply for waivers to open in person?

A: Yes. Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s secretary of Health and Human Service, said on Aug. 28 that schools in counties with daily case rates of 7 to 14 per 100,000 residents can apply for elementary school waivers for students in grades K-6. Schools and districts must consult with employee unions, parents and the community before applying for the waiver, which must be approved by the county public health department in consultation with the state Department of Public Health.

Q. Why did the state change its county monitoring system?

A: The state decided to simplify its previous complex county monitoring system by reducing the number of metrics it was calculating (from six metrics to two) and, instead, creating a four-tiered system. Also, it will change the status of counties every seven days instead of daily. All of this is intended to create a more predictable, easily understandable way to determine when businesses and schools can reopen, Gov. Newsom said, when he introduced the new system Aug. 28.

The previous county monitoring list also included data related to the total number of tests administered daily, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19, the number of patients admitted to intensive care units due to COVID-19 and the number of respirators available. But Ghaly said those are “lagging indicators” and the state wanted to focus on the earliest indicators that show what is happening currently in communities, so they chose case rates.

Focusing on test positivity rates also allows the state to remind the public about the ways to avoid becoming infected, he said, such as by washing hands frequently, wearing masks, maintaining physical distances of 6 feet and avoiding mixing with people outside of households, when possible.

However, both Ghaly and Newsom said the state can take an “emergency break” from reopenings if hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions begin to overwhelm county healthcare systems. On Oct. 6, Ghaly said that as schools have reopened, he has not seen any indication that the reopenings have contributed to the spread of COVID-19 in communities.

* EdSource data journalist Daniel J. Willis contributed to this report.

Story originally published by EdSource.