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Private, small schools are first in line to apply for elementary school reopening waivers

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At least 48 schools in San Diego County have applied to reopen in-person elementary instruction through the county’s waiver process, including the private Warren-Walker School, which has a lower school in Point Loma for prekindergarten through fifth grade.

Of the applications the county announced Aug. 13, all but four are private or parochial schools.

New state criteria for 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. In early August, 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 until they get off the state’s COVID watch 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.

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.

Each waiver will take five business days to be reviewed by the county and state for a variety of criteria, such as current county coronavirus data and whether the school consulted with parents, community members and staff.

The earliest a school can reopen, if the county approves the waiver, is two weeks after it applies.

Warren-Walker School Headmaster Raymond Volker told the Point Loma-OB Monthly on Aug. 14 that since the school’s waiver application “is still in processing, we are not sure it will be granted. Therefore ... we are not prepared to make further comment at this time.”

The public San Diego Unified School District, which includes the Point Loma Cluster of nine schools, announced in July that it would start the school year Aug. 31 with distance learning and said Aug. 10 that it may be months before children will return to campuses.

Educational services such as Spark Tutors, Tutors and Friends and Day Prep adapt to increased inquiries, including interest in the ‘learning pod’ trend.

Elementary schools must 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, as well as the availability of COVID-19 testing and a school’s ability to investigate and respond to cases.

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

The waivers may not matter so much, however, if San Diego County can keep up progress in lowering its coronavirus case rate.

The county needs to be off the watch list and keep the rate at 100 or below per 100,000 people for two consecutive weeks in order for all schools to reopen. As of Aug. 13, the rate was below 100 for two consecutive days.

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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