A second-grade teacher uses a white board to teach both her in-class and online students. (Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education)

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Thursday the creation of one online spot where school districts can find technical information and resources, and parents can find answers and lodge concerns on reopening schools during the pandemic. It includes a website that will launch later this month that will list COVID-19 outbreaks by school and district and permit parents to file complaints online and through a hotline telephone if their schools are not following safety protocols.

The new Safe Schools for All Hub, linking to California Department of Public Health guidelines and providing new resources and rationales for the state’s COVID strategies, elaborates on Newsom’s initial Safe Schools for All plan that he announced on Dec. 30. He had promised but not detailed more transparency, data and reassurances to justify his goal of reopening elementary schools in February and March.

Since then, the focus has been on $2 billon in grants that Newsom said would be available to schools that agreed to send elementary students back to school, starting Feb. 15. They would have to negotiate a health and safety plan with employee unions by Feb. 1 and start a comprehensive testing program for students and staff.

Some districts, not only seven of the largest urban districts that wrote Newsom a highly critical letter, but also understaffed smaller districts, have complained that the state was offering financial incentives but no help to meet the tight timetable and added responsibilities, and had not provided details on the safety plan and logistics of testing. Newsom had offered to give school districts a highly discounted price for COVID-19 tests run through a new state-built lab in Valencia, but districts were worried they would have to set up billing and specimen collection systems.

The “one-stop” information site, which the governor’s staff said has been in the works for weeks, and a promise of more state assistance, are a response to districts’ criticisms and parents’ confusion over the state’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic. More elements of the Safe Schools for All plan will be released in coming weeks, Ben Chida, Newsom’s deputy chief cabinet officer, said during a webinar on Thursday. Meanwhile, the Legislature will decide whether to approve or revise the separate issue of Newsom’s financial enticements for a quick return to in-person instruction. Legislative hearings are expected next week.

The new “hub” also contains a five-page checklist of requirements for a mandated safety plan that districts have been waiting for.

Information document

The administration also consolidated all previous state regulations and guidelines into a single 51-page document. Districts had been calling for one document along those lines that would make it easier to keep track of the slew of directives issued during the pandemic, and help resolve contradictions in requirements between state health guidelines and new Cal/OSHA safety and health regulations.

The new document clarifies rules on wearing masks, maintaining social distancing in classrooms and sets lower infection rates for permitting elementary school grades to return to school:

  • Masks — Even the youngest students, from transitional kindergarten through second grade, must now wear masks in schools;
  • Social distancing — Ambiguous language around social distancing, enabling schools to keep a 6-foot distance among students and staff “where practicable,” has been trimmed back (see Pages 21-22). Under the new regulations, there must now be a 6-foot bubble between staff and students; deviations are permitted after “good-faith efforts” — justifiable to health officials — have been tried, including consideration of hybrid learning models. In no case should the classroom distance be less than 4 feet;
  • Minimum infection levels — On Dec. 30, in announcing his “Safe Schools for All” strategy for reopening schools, Newsom said that no school that had not been already open can return to in-person instruction in counties where the COVID-19 testing positivity rate was averaging more than 28 cases per 100,000 population. Most counties are currently above that level. The new threshold of 25 cases per 100,000 (see Page 8) is slightly lower but still in the upper range of the most restrictive “purple tier” of the state’s classification system and applies only to elementary schools. As before, no middle or high school can reopen until the county is in the red tier, with a much lower rate of infection. (The exception is those schools that brought students back to school before the latest post-Thanksgiving surge.) The new report cites medical evidence from the Harvard Global Health Initiative to explain the threshold.

The hub also includes:

  • Comprehensive information on testing, including a “playbook” for districts on how to set up testing with the state lab in Valencia.
  • A page on the scientific evidence supporting the return of students to class during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • A section for district administrators, who can receive technical help from public health officials and Cal/OSHA on safety plans and other COVID-19 challenges. Chida said the state will be adding safe schools teams in coming weeks.

Starting on Jan. 25, districts will be required to report the status of school reopenings every other week. They must detail by grade whether in-person instruction is full-time or part-time through a hybrid model and whether small cohorts of high-needs students, including homeless children and students with disabilities, are receiving services.

They must also immediately report to the county offices of education any positive COVID-19 cases of students and staff who have been on school premises. This information will then go to the state, which will produce an interactive statewide map that will show each school district’s status on reopening, safety planning and COVID-19 cases. School districts must publish safety reopening plans or the status of plans in the works by Feb. 1.

Story originally published by EdSource.