SAN FRANCISCO (KRON/AP) – Governor Gavin Newsom on Wednesday morning said the state aims to reopen in-person learning in all California schools by spring 2021, with distance learning still an option.
During the press conference at 10 a.m., he said attending class was not a higher risk of getting COVID-19, according to a CDC study.
Rather, the study mentioned that children are more likely to get COVID-19 from adults in their household than from another child in class. Even so, as an added protection when returning to classrooms, the state is attempting to prioritize teachers and school staff for vaccinations in the spring as well.
However, he emphasizes including safety rules when reopening school buildings.
“The guidelines that are in place allow for schools to operate in-person,” Newsom reminded, even during restrictive purple tiers. “The schools have an obligation to submit safety plans.”
A Safe Schools plan posted to the California Department of Public Health website suggests the most effective way to keep in-school COVID-19 transmission low is to make sure teacher/staff break rooms are safe, along with enforcing: masks, physical distancing, small and stable groups, hand hygiene, ventilation, screening for symptoms or close contact, and asymptomatic testing.
Newsom pledged to allocate $2 billion in state aid for schools to implement testing, ventilation and personal protective equipment.
The state’s plan prioritizes elementary school students in kindergarten-2nd grade for returning to classrooms.
The four pillars of reopening in-person schools more widely includes:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Newsom added that distance learning will still be an option as schools begin to open more widely in-person after implementing safety plans.
Coronavirus hospitalizations are stabilizing in parts of California, but patients are still overwhelming hospitals in a large swath of the state, leading Newsom to warn Californians to brace for the effect of a “surge on top of a surge” from recent holiday travel.
Intensive care units in Southern California and the agricultural San Joaquin Valley have no capacity remaining, according to state figures, and Newsom said it was “self-evident” his latest stay-at-home order would be extended Tuesday in places where hospital ICUs have less than 15% capacity.
Newsom said Monday that even with hospital admissions plateauing in some places, the state was destined to move into a “new phase” that it’s been preparing for as it sets up hospital beds in arenas, schools and tents, though it is struggling to staff them.
State officials also notified hospitals that the situation is so dire they should prepare for the possibility that they will have to resort to “crisis care” guidelines established earlier in the pandemic, which allow for rationing treatment.
The surge of infections is due in large part to Thanksgiving travel and celebrations, which happened despite warnings from health officials not to gather because the nation’s most populated state was already seeing explosive growth in cases.
It’s created the greatest challenge for California’s health system since the pandemic began, with case counts, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 regularly breaking records.
While daily coronavirus cases were down to 31,000 Monday from a seven-day average of above 37,000, it was likely due to a lag in data from the weekend, Newsom said.
Models used for planning show hospitalizations more than doubling in the next month from about 20,000 to more than 50,000.
The state has several makeshift hospitals that are taking patients, but more health care workers are needed to staff them, the Democratic governor said. It has deployed more than 1,000 people to 116 hospitals and other facilities through a volunteer corps or the National Guard. On the upside, Newsom said California finally expects to receive more of the traveling health care workers it had requested in anticipation of the shortage.
The Department of Public Health is sending an emergency medical team to Los Angeles to help better distribute patients among hospitals. Some hospitals are well above capacity and others are below, Newsom said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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