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California Schools Could Look Much Different In A COVID-19 World

Andrew Nixon/CapRadio

Going back to campus could be a very different experience for California’s more than 6 million K-12 students once schools eventually reopen.

Educators and health experts say it’s possible campuses will open this fall, but only after measures are in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Those could include temperature checks for students and staff upon arrival, adding isolation rooms for sick students, making playgrounds off-limits and even suspending sports and choir groups.

“I think social distancing is still going to be required. I do see temperature checks on every student, every day. Even possibly testing of students periodically, as well as the faculty,” said Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, which represents 120,000 teachers and staff at public and private schools across the state.

Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom estimated schools could reopen as early as July or August. A CapRadio reader asked us whether that timeframe was realistic.

The answer might vary by region. State and federal health officials can offer guidance, but individual school districts will ultimately decide when to reopen.

In many rural California counties, for example, there are few COVID-19 cases. Freitas said he expects schools could reopen sooner in those areas.

This week Newsom announced counties could move in an Expanded Stage 2 of the state's reopening if they reached certain criteria. More than 20 counties have now been approved, allowing them to reopen malls, restaurants and schools with modifications. No immediate plans to reopen schools have been announced in those counties.

Dr. Dean Blumberg is an infectious disease specialist at the UC Davis Children’s Hospital in Sacramento. He said he’s optimistic that some schools will be able to reopen this fall, but encouraged them to take safe and deliberate steps to keep the virus under control.

“California has done a great job in terms of social distancing,” Blumberg said. “So, we’ve been very fortunate in that those recommendations were done relatively early compared to the size of the outbreak here. So, we have had a really great effect in flattening the curve.”

Asked whether July and August are still realistic, a spokesperson for Newsom said many school districts believe so, at least for summer school.

“Resuming in-person instruction will depend on conditions in the community, and local officials will be best able to make those determinations,” the statement read. “Many communities anticipate potential in-person instruction, including through summer school, as early as late July. The administration will continue to support local decisions.”

While safety is a top priority in reopening, so is funding.

Newsom unveiled a revised state budget Thursday that cuts K-12 and community college funding by 13%, reducing the state’s overall investment from $81 billion last year to $70.5 billion.

Those cuts will make it “highly difficult for us to reopen” K-12 schools in California this fall, Freitas, the teachers union president, said.

Freitas said schools need to be able to provide “additional social distancing resources, PPE resources, cleaning supplies. There are many more things that we need to add, not subtract, in reopening our schools.”

The funding cuts could prevent schools from hiring more nurses along with more teachers to reduce class sizes, a step both Freitas and Blumberg encouraged schools to take.

On Thursday, the CDC released a flow chart intended to help school districts decide whether it’s safe to reopen. It says districts should adhere to state and local orders, protect children and employees at higher risk for severe illness, and screen students and employees for symptoms and history of exposure upon arrival.

If those conditions are met, the CDC then advises districts to ensure health monitoring and safety measures are implemented inside the school before opening. Those include promoting “healthy hygiene practices such as hand washing and employees wearing a cloth face covering, as feasible.”

Blumberg said wearing masks will be yet one more challenge, at least at grade schools.

“I think most teens will be comfortable using a mask appropriately, whereas most 5-year-olds might think of it as a toy or something to goof around with or might forget to not reach under the mask,” he said. “So, it might be a learning curve.”