California Gov. Gavin Newsom laid out strict criteria Friday for school reopenings that make it unlikely the vast majority of districts will have classroom instruction in the fall as the coronavirus pandemic surges. The rules include a mandate that students above 2nd grade and all staff wear masks in school.
Newsom's new guidance mandates that public schools in counties that are on a monitoring list for rising coronavirus infections cannot hold in-person classes and will have to meet strict criteria for reopening.
"The one thing we have the power to do to get our kids back into school? Wear a mask, physically distance, wash your hands," Newsom said.
The guidance says all school staff and all students in grades 3 to 12 will be required to wear face coverings. Younger students will be encouraged but not required to wear masks.
The governor's strict new regulations marked a dramatic shift from his earlier position that it was up to local school districts and boards to decide when and how to reopen. His announcement came just weeks before many of the state's 1,000 school districts are set to resume instruction in mid-August, with many still finalizing reopening plans.
With school districts struggling over the decision, teachers unions, parents and school officials have urged state leaders to provide more direction on whether it is safe to go back to school.
The state this week reported its second-highest one day totals in infection rates and deaths since the start of the pandemic. Nearly 7,400 people have died in California — more than 1,100 of them in the past two weeks.
Several large school districts have already said their schools will begin the new term virtually, including Los Angeles and San Diego, the state's two largest with a combined enrollment of 720,000 K-12 students. San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, Long Beach, Santa Ana and San Bernardino are among the other districts opting not to immediately return to classrooms.
Los Angeles is the second-largest school district in the country after New York City, where mayor Bill de Blasio has said schools are expected to reopen with a hybrid model of in-person instruction and at-home learning, subject to state approval.
Republican Assemblyman Kevin Kiley accused the governor of listening to "special interests, not science" in laying out the rules.
"Rather than adopting a balanced approach that provides California families options for classroom-based and home-based learning, the governor is shutting down the vast majority of schools across the state," Kiley said.
California officials have placed at least 32 of the state's 58 counties on a watch list because of concerning coronavirus transmission and hospitalization rates. Being on the list puts restrictions on the ability to reopen various segments of the economy.
If those counties are still on the watch list when the new term begins, the guidance means that most California schools would not be reopening classrooms but holding school via distance learning.
It lays out in detail when classrooms and schools would have to close if there is an outbreak. If a student or educator test positive for the virus, a classroom would have to close and the students and teacher would quarantine for 14 days. An entire school should revert to distance learning if it reports multiple cases, or 5 percent of students and staff test positive within a 14-day period.
Newsom's administration and the state Department of Education had released guidelines in early June for districts to follow when reopening, including implementing temperature checks for students, remaking activities such as lunch and recess, and recommending cloth face coverings for students and teachers. But at that time, California had managed to keep its coronavirus case count under control.
"Since we've issued our guidance, conditions have changed dramatically," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said during a media briefing Wednesday.