Your school wants a waiver to open in person? In the Bay Area, sit tight and wait

School starts as early as next week in many Bay Area districts, so the window to apply for a waiver to open the school year in person is closing fast. But the confusing process to get permission through county public health departments is just beginning.

That combination was leading to more questions than answers on Tuesday, as Bay Area health departments scrambled to assess the new guidelines that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office issued late Monday for “in-person instruction.”

“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Alameda County Office of Education spokesperson Michelle Smith McDonald said. “We won’t find the gaps until we’re in them.”

With pressure building from teachers’ unions and health officials, the governor last month mandated that K12 schools in counties on the state’s coronavirus watchlist — including all of the Bay Area — start the school year online. But he cleared the way for county health departments to grant waivers to elementary schools that follow a rigorous set of guidelines — including reduced class sizes, mask mandates and routine schoolwide testing — to open their classrooms for instruction.

“Bringing in-person education and instruction is, of course, one of our key goals in California,” California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly said at a news conference Tuesday. “But as the governor has said and we’ve tried to communicate through this waiver process, we’ll only do it if we can assure that we’ve created a lower-risk environment for the spread of COVID.”

In the Bay Area, one thing is clear: Most public schools in the region are avoiding the hassles and starting the school year online. But with the first day of school quickly approaching, some private schools are anxiously waiting for the go-ahead to apply for waivers.

“The greatest frustration is that there are no clear guidelines between the county and the state,” said Steve Macias, headmaster at Canterbury Christian School in Los Altos, a private pre-K-5 school. “I believe that if the county and the state want to go in the business of regulating private schools they should be on the same page, and they have not been.”

And private schools that operate in more than one county are bound to find differences in the waiver process. On Tuesday, a survey of Bay Area counties found Alameda and San Francisco aren’t planning to even consider granting waivers until the virus slows its spread.

Santa Clara County said it has already received about 80 inquiries from public, charter and private schools, but the county is still developing its waiver process and timeline. San Mateo County Health is working with the Office of Education to develop a process to submit waiver requests and expects to release details “soon,” according to deputy county health chief Srija Srinivasan. Contra Costa is also establishing its process to apply.

The state’s guidelines, issued Monday, call for schools to:

  • Apply for waivers 14 days prior to their desired opening date.
  • Consult with “labor, parent and community organizations” and publish reopening plans on the website of the local educational agency.
  • Encourage periodic testing of school staff and recommends daily visual wellness and symptoms checks on staff and students.
  • Require masks be worn in class and on buses by staff and students in 3rd grade and higher.
  • Designate a liaison to coordinate monitoring and reporting of positive cases
  • Close in-person instruction if there are multiple cases across multiple classes, or when at least 5% of the school — including students and staff — test positive within a 14-day period.

While educators largely support the guidelines, private school headmasters like Macias say his school is already practicing many of the safety measures for in-person summer camp — so the waiver process feels like more bureaucracy.

“If we’re allowed to the open on September 8 as a day camp, what is changed between September 8 and September 9 to be open as a school?” he said. “Until the county can explain how that makes us any more or less safe, I’m very unsatisfied with how they’ve handled it.”

Ron Reynolds, executive director of the California Association of Private School Organizations, says he expects the majority of private elementary schools to apply for a waiver. For him, the open questions left in the guidelines are a plus, because they “leave some space, appropriately so, for the exercise of best human judgment and flexibility at the local level,” Reynolds said.

Reopening schools has become one of the biggest debates across the country as the Trump Administration is strongly encouraging schools to open classrooms so parents can get back to work. But while the state has opened the door for younger children to return to the classroom, middle and high schools are not eligible for waivers. Studies have shown younger children are less susceptible to catch or spread the virus, but like so many other things with the coronavirus, the science is still emerging.

That’s why schools need to adopt their own safety plans, such as not chanting or shouting inside and capping groups at four to eight kids, Ghaly said.

George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at UCSF, said while there have been few large coronavirus outbreaks in elementary schools in the U.S., the standard precautions of masks and social distancing are essential, as a recent outbreak in a Georgia summer camp proved.

“Nobody ever said that children can’t be infected,” Rutherford said. “And no one’s ever said the children can’t transmit. All we said is that they seem less likely to. So the risk is lower with younger children… (but) you have to have all the precautions in place. But if you had to pick a group you wanted to educate first, I would do K through 3.”