New daily cases of COVID-19 infection rates in California have fallen to levels enabling elementary schools in all but three rural counties to begin the process of reopening elementary schools, according to updated data that the California Department of Public Health released on Tuesday.

Only in Alpine, Colusa and Inyo counties does the daily number of new cases of COVID-19 exceed 25 per 100,000 residents, the threshold that Gov. Gavin Newsom and the public health department set in December for the safe return for in-person instruction for K-6 students. Elementary school students in those counties make up about a tenth of 1% of those in the state.

In many counties, case rates were two or three times that number in January. As of Feb. 23, the rate of new daily cases statewide is 15.2 per 100,000 residents.

However, the latest data doesn’t mean that districts will be sending elementary school students back to the classroom immediately if at all during the current school year.

Reopening schools

Of the 58 counties, 47 remain in the “purple tier,” the highest of four levels in the state’s monitoring system setting restrictions for business and community activities. To be in the purple tier, counties have a new daily case rate of more than 7 cases per 100,000, and the percentage of positive tests is 8% or more.

The California Teachers Association and local union affiliates in many districts, especially in suburban and urban ones, have taken the position that teachers and other school employees should not return for in-person instruction until case rates are in the “red tier” (case rates between 4 and 7 per 100,000), and that staff should also be fully vaccinated as well before returning.

In addition, before reopening for in-person instruction, all districts must submit plans showing they have met Cal/OSHA regulations for COVID-19  health and safety protections, and have completed a separate checklist of health and safety practices. Social distancing, PPE, ventilation and testing requirements are among the requirements they must meet.

Legislative leaders have proposed Senate Bill 86, which would require elementary schools to reopen in the red tier in order to receive their share of $2 billion in incentive funding. Vaccinating school staff would not be a precondition for doing so.

However, dozens of school districts are reopening now or plan to do so in the coming weeks, guided by the 25 new cases per 100,000 standard that Newsom has set allowing K-6 classes to reopen. Those school districts that already had opened in the fall are allowed to continue to offer in-person instruction, as long as they can demonstrate that they have been operating safely.

* Story originally published by EdSource.