Dozens of California elementary schools have been approved to reopen with in-person instruction under special waivers approved by health officials in counties that were placed on a state monitoring list because of high numbers of coronavirus infections.
State health authorities haven’t said how many have been approved statewide. But data from San Diego and Orange counties on Thursday showed together they have had 50 schools approved, all of them private and mostly religious, along with two small public school districts.
And a small public school in rural San Bernardino County that was first approved last week opened its classrooms on Thursday.
Dr. Clayton Chau, Orange County’s acting health officer, said he has trepidation about allowing children back into the classroom but knows keeping them home takes an emotional toll and that online instruction isn’t optimal for their educational growth. He implored adults to wear masks, practice physical distancing and wash their hands to keep the community’s children safe as they return to classrooms.
“I wake up every night in the middle of the night and the first thing that comes to my mind is this business of bringing our children back for in-person education. Do I have fear and anxiety? Of course I do,” Chau told reporters. “I don’t think it is too much to ask the adults in the community to do this.”
Danyelle Knight, a spokeswoman for Fairmont Schools in Orange County, said students started the academic year online this week. With the waiver, the school will welcome those who opt for in-person instruction back to campus next Wednesday while continuing to offer online learning to those who prefer to stay home.
“We know some families aren’t going to feel comfortable because of whatever their issues may be, whether it’s health problems or elderly folks in the home,” Knight said. “But we’re able to offer both options again, which is what we intended to do from the beginning.”
The Lucerne Valley Unified School District was the first and so far only waiver approved in San Bernardino County. Most of the students at the district’s lone elementary school opted for a hybrid model that has them splitting time between classroom and at-home instruction while the rest will continue only distance learning.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued rules last month that would keep nearly all the state’s K-12 schools closed for classroom instruction at the start of this academic year. He said schools in counties on the state’s monitoring list can’t resume in-person learning until their county is off the list for 14 consecutive days. But he created a waiver process to let elementary schools seek to reopen sooner.
School officials must create a safety plan and show there is support from teachers and parents to reopen and then win approval from county and state health officials. Only kindergarten through 6th-grade students are eligible because it’s believed older students are more apt to contract and spread the virus.
Chau said two dozen private schools were approved so far in his county, along with the Los Alamitos Unified School District, which has 3,500 elementary school children. In neighboring San Diego County, 26 individual schools have been approved, along with the Rancho Santa Fe School District, which operates two schools on a single site — one for elementary children and the other for middle-schoolers.
Some other counties on the state’s monitoring list have also been receiving waiver applications, including Marin and Kern. Santa Clara County said it approved some, but it did not say how many or whether they also were approved by the state.
RELATED: Interactive Map of Coronavirus Cases
Others are not taking waiver applications, including Alameda in the San Francisco Bay Area.
"We will consider implementing a process adapted to Alameda County elementary schools when local indicators improve and in alignment with the state’s guidance," said Neetu Balram, a spokesperson for the county’s public health department.
San Diego County, the state’s second largest with about 3.3 million residents, is among four counties that came off the monitoring list this week. Neighboring Orange County, the state’s third-largest with a population of 3.2 million, has seen its virus cases fall and could come off soon.
Los Angeles, San Bernardino and virtually every other large county remain on the list.