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State gives more details for how San Diego County elementary schools can reopen with waivers

A gate is locked at a closed elementary school in July.
(File / AP)

Schools will have to detail their plans for testing students and staff for the coronavirus and triggers for returning to distance learning.

New criteria for state waivers mean elementary schools in San Diego County can apply for a chance to reopen, despite the state’s mandate that schools in counties struggling with COVID-19 offer online education only.

Elementary schools learned recently that they can apply for waivers, but initially the state’s criteria for them were not specific. On Aug. 4, the state released more-detailed criteria and a waiver application form for schools to complete.

The waivers would allow exceptions to the state’s requirement that all public and private schools remain closed in counties like San Diego that are on the state’s COVID watch list, until they get off the list for two consecutive weeks. The waivers would come from county health departments.

The state says elementary schools can apply only if they are in a county with a COVID-19 coronavirus case rate at or below 200 per 100,000 people.

Under that measure, schools in San Diego County and most counties on the watch list can apply. Los Angeles is one of the counties that cannot apply.

Schools can only apply to reopen for transitional kindergarten through sixth grade. Several studies have suggested that young children are less likely to transmit the coronavirus than older children, teenagers and adults.

San Diego County Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten said she expects many schools will apply.

The Catholic Diocese of San Diego is among those that have said they plan to apply.

The San Diego Unified School District did not immediately respond to a request for comment Aug. 5. The district announced July 13 that it would start the school year Aug. 31 with online-only instruction.

The district’s new distance learning ground rules set higher standards than distance learning in the spring.

Applicant schools must show they have consulted with — but not necessarily gotten the approval of — parent and community groups, as well as staff. School districts and schools that have labor unions must consult with them.

Elementary schools also have to post reopening plans on their websites. The plans must follow state guidance and address several topics, such as keeping students in the same small groups each day, having students and staff wear masks, physical distancing, testing students and staff for the coronavirus and setting triggers for reverting to distance learning if someone at school gets the virus.

The county also will have to consider health data, such as the rate of new coronavirus cases, the percentages of positive tests and hospitalization trends in communities.

The state criteria do not say what levels those data should be at for a school to get a waiver.

The county also must consider the availability of COVID-19 testing and the school’s ability to investigate and respond to cases.

The county must notify the state health department about each application.

The state has three days to ask questions or relay concerns before a county approves or denies an application.

The county can attach conditions to the approval of a waiver, such as requiring that elementary schools reopen in phases.

Schools have to apply at least two weeks before they want to open.

San Diego County has gradually been lowering its coronavirus case rate. As of Aug. 4, the rate was 114.9 per 100,000 people, according to the county website. That was down from 139.4 about a week before.

The county needs to keep the rate at 100 or below for two consecutive weeks in order for all schools to reopen.

To achieve that, San Diego County would have to report 240 or fewer new coronavirus cases daily for two weeks straight, Wooten said. It reported 290 new cases and three more deaths Aug. 4.

Kristen Taketa writes for The San Diego Union-Tribune. U-T Community Press staff writer Elisabeth Frausto contributed to this report.


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