(Photo courtesy of 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  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: What is the current status of California’s counties?

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. Another four were downgraded on Nov. 24, and six on Nov. 30, bringing the total to 51 counties. By Dec. 7, 52 counties were in the purple tier and by Dec. 15, 55 counties were in the purple tier.

Counties rated purple as of Dec. 29: Alameda, Amador Butte, Contra Costa, Colusa, El Dorado, Del Norte, Fresno, Glenn, Inyo, Kern, Kings, Lassen, Mendocino, Marin, 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, Tulare, San Francisco, Lake, Calaveras, Modoc, Mono, Plumas and San Mateo counties.

These 54 counties now in the purple tier include 956 public school districts and 1,289 charters enrolling a total of 6,051,843 students, — 99.67% of the state’s total enrollment.

Counties rated red as of Dec. 29: Humboldt, Mariposa, and Alpine. Counties must remain out of the purple tier for at least 14 consecutive days for schools to open for in-person instruction.

Counties rated orange as of Dec. 29: Sierra.

No counties rated yellow as of Dec. 29

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?