By Zach Cavanagh

California schools can physically reopen when their county is off the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list for 14 straight days, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Friday as part of California’s “Pandemic Plan for Schools.”

As part of this plan, students in the third grade and above, as well as all staff, must wear masks with students in second grade or below being encouraged to wear masks or face shields. The plan is a state mandate for the California education system and includes both public and private schools.

As Orange County remains one of the majority of California counties on the state monitoring list, local schools will likely open this school year as they closed the previous one with continued distance learning. Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD) issued a statement after Newsom’s announcement saying they will begin 2020-21 with distance learning per Newsom’s mandate.

In a week opened by a controversial Orange County Board of Education recommendation to open schools without masks and distancing and marked by the Capistrano Unified School District approving a flexible reopening plan, Newsom ended the week by announcing the state’s school reopening plan in his daily address on Friday from Sacramento.

“Learning in the state of California is non-negotiable,” Newsom said. “Schools must, and I underscore must, provide meaningful instruction during this pandemic whether they are physically opened, the schools, or not.”

In addition to the mask requirements, school staff must maintain six feet between each other and their students. The other adaptations for schools include temperature checks at he beginning of each day, hand-washing stations available, deep sanitation and disinfection and quarantine protocols. Staff will be regularly tested, and the state’s contact tracing workforce will prioritize schools.

“Our students, our teachers, staff and certainly parents, we all prefer in-classroom instructions for all the obvious reasons, social and emotional foundationally, but only if it can be done safely,” Newsom said. “Safety will ultimately make the recommendation on how we go about educating our kids as we go into the fall.”

Newsom also laid out guidelines for closing back down if after schools have reopened the spread of coronavirus continues or enters the classroom.

Schools should first consult public health officers, but the guidelines stipulate that a classroom cohort – student or staff – goes home when there is a confirmed case. The school will go home when the campus has multiple cohorts with cases or more than 5% of their population is positive. The entire district will go home if 25% of its schools are closed within a 14-day period.

Newsom also announced the state has invested $5.3 billion in additional funding for schools with a priority on equity. The state’s plan calls for “rigorous distance learning,” which necessitates access to devices and connectivity for all students and adapted lessons for English language learners and special education students.

The state plan also asks for daily live interaction with teachers and other students, as well as challenging assignments equivalent to those of in-person classes.

Newsom posited his and the state’s commitment to reopening schools and his hope to not “virtualize” education long term. Newsom reaffirmed following the long-stated health guidelines were the quickest way to reopen schools in California.

“The one thing we have the power to do, to get our kids back into school, is look at this list again: wear a mask, physically distance, wash your hands, minimize the mixing,” Newsom said. “The more we do on this list, and we do it at scale, the quicker all those counties come off that monitoring list, we’re going to mitigate the spread of this virus, and these kids are back in school.”

In Orange County on Thursday, the cumulative number of coronavirus cases sat at 27,904 with 873 new cases received, 466 cumulative deaths, 711 hospitalizations and 12,264 estimated recoveries. Concerning school-age children, Orange County has had 1,585 cases for those under 17 years old and no deaths under 17. Of California’s 356,178 cases as of Thursday, 29,945 are under 17 years old with no deaths.

Locally as of Thursday, San Clemente has had 241 cases with three deaths, Dana Point has had 138 cases with no deaths, San Juan Capistrano has had 184 cases with three deaths and Rancho Mission Viejo has had 38 cases with less than five deaths. For children under 17 years old, San Clemente has had 11 cases, Dana Point has had 7 cases, San Juan Capistrano has had 15 cases and Rancho Mission Viejo has had 5 cases.

The county’s seven-day testing positivity rate held at 14%, above the California Department of Public Health threshold of 8%. The county’s case rate per 100,000 people of 247.8 remains well above the state threshold of 25. Those thresholds are what keep Orange County on the state’s monitoring list. Orange County has 36.5% of its ICU beds available and 64% of its ventilators currently available, both above the respective state thresholds of 20% and 25%. The county’s three-day hospitalization increase average of 6.2% also remains below the state threshold of 10%.

Zach Cavanagh

Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is a multiple California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports. Email at zcavanagh@picketfencemedia.com.

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