Local and state officials weigh in on return to in-classroom instruction

By Debra Moore

[email protected]

Winter break is coming to a close and Plumas Unified School District students will return to virtual learning Jan. 4. As of now, students are scheduled to return to in-person instruction Jan. 25 — based on a decision made by the school board earlier this month — but the board is scheduled to revisit the issue during its Jan. 13 meeting.

During an interview today, Dec. 30, Plumas Unified Superintendent Terry Oestreich said she had attended a statewide meeting Dec. 29 pertaining to school re-openings and an announcement was expected today. Gov. Gavin Newsom made such an announcement during a morning news conference — a phased-in approach to return to the classroom.

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“Safety has been the baseline for how we advanced guidelines for education,” Newsom said. “Learning remains nonnegotiable, but so does safety.”

That was the sentiment expressed by Oestreich prior to the governor’s remarks. “It always come down to the safety issue,” she said. During the state meeting she attended, Oestreich said that vaccinations for teachers and other staff were named as priorities for a safe return to school.

Vaccinations were included in the governor’s plan, as were many safety measures.

“Safety mitigation matters,” the governor said. “Mask wearing; physical distancing; stable, small cohorts; washing hands; ventilation — when they are put into place transmission will be reduced.” He said that without such measures, studies indicate that outbreaks are increased by 2.5 times.

Newsom outlined a phased-in plan with emphasis on getting elementary school children and those with special needs back into the classroom. He said that each school would need to present a safety plan to the local public health agency and the state for approval. Having a plan isn’t new, but the fact that those plans will be monitored for implementation by public health. There will also be a website established so that individuals can report school sites that aren’t adhering to guidelines.

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When asked if his agency was prepared to monitor school sites, Public Health Director Andrew Woodruff said that the monitoring will fall more on the state department of public health and partners. “Plumas County Public Health will of course continue our support and partnership with local schools,” he said.

Oestreich said that she had met with Woodruff and Plumas County Public Health Officer Mark Satterfield earlier this week and both indicated that Feb. 1 is when the county will see the full impact of the holidays.

Newsom alluded to that as well in his address. He said that while it appeared that numbers in the state were beginning to plateau, the effects of Christmas haven’t been felt yet, and the New Year’s holiday is still ahead. He envisioned February, March and April as the months when schools would phase in their reopenings.

To do so, the state will be providing funding — another $2 billion or roughly the equivalent of $450 per student to ensure that safety mitigation measures are in place. The state will also provide PPE for the school sites, including surgical masks for all teachers and staff.

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Testing will also be ramped up, as will contact tracing. “Teachers, paraprofessionals want to see more,” Newsom said. Once counties move back to the tier system those who in the red and purple tiers will be tested even if they are asymptomatic, and in the orange and yellow tiers, those who are symptomatic would be tested.

As for vaccines, currently the state is completing phase 1a, and phase “1b moves beyond the cohort of healthcare workers and seniors in congregate settings” and includes the teachers, the governor said.

State Superintendent of Education Tony Thurmond also weighed in during the news conference and said, “The vaccine will be a game changer when it’s available.”

He cited the importance of robust testing and contact tracing, and working with schools to safely reopen.

“We know this is a tough time,” he said. “We want to applaud our students, parents and educators for their resilience.”

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 Snapshot of the plan

The California Department of Public Health released this synopsis of the school reopening plan:

Funding. The Budget will propose for immediate action in January, $2 billion for the safe reopening of schools beginning in February, with a priority for returning the youngest children (TK-2nd grade) and those who are most disproportionately impacted first, then returning other grade levels to in-person instruction through the spring. These funds will provide approximately $450 per student to school districts offering in-person instruction and will be weighted for districts serving students from low-income families, English learners and foster youth.

Safety & Mitigation. To further ensure health and safety in the classroom, the Administration will focus on implementation of key measures, including testing, PPE, contact tracing, and vaccinations.

Testing. The Administration will support frequent COVID-19 testing for all school staff and students, including weekly testing at schools in communities with high rates of transmission. For example, any interested public school will be on-boarded to the state-owned Valencia Branch Lab for PCR tests at one-third the market rate and the State will establish a hotline to help schools implement testing.

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PPE. All staff and students in schools are required to wear masks. Furthermore, surgical masks will be recommended for school staff, and the Administration will distribute millions of surgical masks to schools at no cost. The Administration has also enabled schools to leverage state-negotiated master contracts for PPE to reduce costs and streamline supply chains.

Contact Tracing. Schools will continue to be on-boarded onto the School Portal for Outbreak Tracking (SPOT) to improve collaboration between school and health officials, and members of the state contact tracing workforce will be deployed to improve communication with schools.

Vaccinations. School staff will be prioritized in the distribution of vaccines through the spring of 2021.

Oversight & Assistance. Dr. Naomi Bardach, a UCSF pediatrician and expert on COVID-19 transmission in schools, will lead the Safe Schools for All Team, a cross-agency team composed of dedicated staff from CDPH, Cal/OSHA, and educational agencies. The Team will provide hands-on support to help schools develop and implement their COVID-19 Safety Plans. These supports include school visits and walk-throughs as warranted, webinars and training materials, and ongoing technical assistance.

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Transparency & Accountability. A state dashboard will enable all Californians to see their school’s reopening status, level of available funding, and data on in-school transmissions. Additionally, a web-based “hotline” will empower school staff and parents to report concerns to the Safe Schools for All Team, which will lead to escalating levels of intervention, starting with technical assistance and ending with legal enforcement.

California’s Safe Schools for All Plan provides the support and accountability to establish a clear path to minimize in-school transmissions and enable, first, a phased return to in-person instruction, and then ongoing safe in-person instruction.