Will Santa Clara County schools reopen in the fall? The answer is unclear, but county issues guidance
Photo courtesy of Alum Rock Union School District.

Santa Clara County officials Tuesday painted a picture of what returning to school might look like for kids this fall: desks six feet apart, face coverings for everyone and canceling some activities such as choir.

Officials released guidance for local K-12 public and private schools for reopening for the 2020-21 school year.

The biggest question on parents’ minds after months of home-schooling: Will the schools reopen this fall for in-person classes? The answer is still unclear.

“It will depend on the containment of COVID-19 in the months to come,” Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody explained during a news conference. “As I mentioned before, we are monitoring a number of factors.”

But the 23-page guidance issued Tuesday is meant to help teachers and administrators begin crafting new plans and practices to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 during classes, on school buses or during extracurricular activities. The guidance will look different for elementary schools than it will for high schools.

For younger children, who Cody said aren’t primarily transmitters of the disease, they will be required to stay in “stable cohorts” with their own classmates and teachers. Some furniture will be removed from classrooms and desks would likely be placed in rows, facing the front of the room — not each other.

Children, teachers and other school employees must wear face coverings or masks. Some activities and classes, such as choir, will be taught individually or online.

For high schools, the risk of spreading coronavirus is much higher. Cody said everyone will be required to maintain 6-feet of social distancing, wash hands frequently and wear face coverings at all times.

Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Cindy Chavez acknowledged how “tired” parents are. Kids have been stuck at home since the shelter-in-place orders were issued in mid-March.

But, she stressed, getting back to “normal” is going to require more diligence from the community. Santa Clara County was the first in the nation to implement a stay-at-home order to stop the spread of the deadly disease and had successfully flattened the curve.

As the economy began to reopen in recent weeks, however, the number of new cases per day have crept up and the county recorded two consecutive days of of its highest case counts last week. Hospitalizations are also on the rise, landing Santa Clara County on the state’s watch list and threatening to once again close certain businesses, such as bars.

“Closing the schools, I think, was one of the hardest decisions, although Dr. Cody had many she had to consider to keep the community safe,” Chavez said Tuesday. “We want more than anything else to open back up and get our children back to school, but what that requires of us as a community is… social distancing, washing your hands, not touching our face and having as little contact as possible with others. That’s the only way we will fight the virus.”

When it comes to food services, the guidance requires serving meals in classrooms or outdoors instead of in cafeterias or group dining rooms. Officials also suggest serving individually plated or bagged meals and avoid buffets, sharing food or utensils.

Last week, teachers unions across Santa Clara County expressed concern over the lack of input in decision-making as schools planned to reopen. In a declaration signed by 34 labor groups representing educators at all county school districts, they cited education equity, safety protocols and materials, technology and funding as issues districts needed to address.

While not as concerned with guidance itself, San Jose Teachers Association President Patrick Bernhardt took issue with the ability to actualize protocols.

“My bigger concern is the ability of school districts to put this guidance into practice,” Bernhardt told San José Spotlight. “They’re all suffering from insufficient funding in general and insufficient funding to meet this pandemic crisis. There are some significant questions of whether they can implement all of the requirements and guidance to keep students and teachers safe.”

Bernhardt said he’s concerned about group size, which has been addressed for childcare and summer school under the current health order, as well as accommodations for employees at higher risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. Both weren’t outlined in the public health document, though the guidance calls for class sizes to “be as small as possible.”

The county’s guidance, coupled with Gov. Gavin Newsom signing California’s $202 billion budget Monday, mean regulatory pieces are in place for schools to decide how the upcoming academic year will look, Bernhardt said.

“In my view, there’s no significant additional shoe to drop,” he said. “That means they need to look at can they implement guidelines to make schools safe to reopen.”

Click here to read the full guidance for reopening Santa Clara County schools.

Here are some other questions about the new guidance:

Q: Will students need to have their temperatures taken?

Cody said the hallmark of these guidelines is flexibility. If the school wishes to implement temperature screenings, they can — but it is not a requirement. “What is most important is students are screened for symptoms,” she said.

Q: How soon will parents know about the first day of school?

Cody said it is really “up to us.”

“It’s up to us to do everything possible to suppress the levels,” she added, mentioning hand washing, social distancing and wearing face coverings. “The better we do that, the more sure we can be that schools can safely reopen for in-person instruction.”

Q: Have schools been asked to prepare for multiple possibilities, including full distance learning?

Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan said schools should be prepared to have a “hybrid” plan — where some activities resume in person and others remain online. It also depends on whether COVID-19 cases are continuing to rise, she said.

Q: What about athletics and high school sports?

Officials said there will be forthcoming guidance on that.

Q: What do we know about how children spread the virus?

Cody said that when the county first closed schools in March, the “working hypothesis” was COVID-19 was like the flu and that children can rapidly spread it. But that is not accurate.

“What we’re learning so far with COVID is that young children aren’t the engines of transmission as they are with the flu,” Cody said. “It’s probably more likely that an adult will spread to a child than a child will spread to an adult or a child to a child.”

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