Local schools may be allowed to broadly reopen next week, as the state has downgraded the COVID-19 risk level in Santa Clara County.
The state moved the county into the “red,” or “substantial,” risk tier Sept. 8, an improvement from the “purple,” or “widespread,” tier the county was in before.
Schools are permitted to reopen for in-person instruction if the county stays in the red tier for 14 consecutive days. On the flip side, if conditions worsen for two consecutive weeks, the county moves back into the more restrictive tier, where in-person schooling is prohibited.
“Especially in the context of the significant volume of activity that the opening of schools may bring, it’s all the more important that we remain really vigilant and on top of trying to keep the case counts here locally as low as possible,” County Counsel James Williams said at a press conference.
Now that the county is out of the purple tier, personal-care services, museums, zoos, aquariums and gyms and fitness centers are also allowed to open with modifications or limited capacity. Shopping malls, previously allowed to open indoors at 25% capacity, can now expand to 50% capacity.
If the county stays in the red tier for 14 days, K-12 schools will be able to bring students back to campus. They will still need to follow rules set by the county and state public health departments, including symptom checks for all students and staff and mandatory mask-wearing in the classroom for teachers and students in third grade and above, subject to limited exemptions.
Up until now, schools haven’t been allowed to reopen for in-person classes and have instead been operating virtually. The exception has been that elementary schools can apply for waivers from the county to bring students back. The Los Altos School District was granted a waiver last week.
To learn more about local districts’ plans in the event the county remains in the red tier and broader reopenings are possible, read on below.
The Los Altos School District’s waiver approval means the district will be able to bring back certain groups of students, regardless of the county’s overall status. The waiver covers kids in third grade and below, as well as the groups of students who face the most challenges in distance learning.
However, if the county can stay out of the “widespread” tier for 14 consecutive days, schools will no longer need waivers to reopen and all grade levels will be eligible to return.
Should that happen, Superintendent Jeff Baier said the district would still likely move forward with a phased approach, bringing students back by grade level starting with the youngest learners and using a model where students are on campus two days a week and home the remaining three. However, it would create the opportunity to eventually bring back older students.
“We don’t want to be caught in that situation where the doors swing open wide and we end up being one of those places that has to close down because we did it too fast,” he said.
Baier planned to ask the LASD Board of Trustees for input on how to move forward if the county is able to stay out of the “widespread” tier at a Monday evening meeting, which fell after the Town Crier’s print deadline.
It may be possible, Baier said, to bring grade levels back in pairs rather than individually, and wait two weeks between groups rather than three, as was approved under the waiver application.
“Our goal is to have kids back on campus and (be) teaching them in person,” he said. “But we have to be sure we’re doing this in a way that is safe for everybody involved.”
Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District administrators recommended to the district’s Board of Trustees last month that the high schools should remain in distance learning through the first quarter, which ends Oct. 9. That’s still the plan, even if a broader reopening becomes permissible, Superintendent Nellie Meyer confirmed last week.
However, the district is looking into the potential to bring small cohorts of students back to campus in the meantime, Meyer said. The state allows districts to bring limited groups of students back to campus for targeted support services without the need for a waiver and regardless of which tier a county is in. Each group must have 14 or fewer students, and the intent is to target students with the greatest need, prioritizing students with disabilities, according to the state’s guidance.
MVLA officials are in the process of working with the teacher and staff unions to seek support for bringing cohorts back, Meyer said. The district and unions have agreements in place covering distance learning, but there currently isn’t a formal agreement covering an in-person return.
As for whether to more broadly reopen if the county stays out of the “widespread” tier for two weeks, Meyer said the district will stick with its plan of staying remote for the entire first quarter and is still in the process of working out its plans for the rest of the semester.
“It will be, of course, first dependent on what (tier) we’re in,” Meyer said, “But also, it is very much subject to conversations with our bargaining groups.”
According to Meyer, district officials intend to bring the board a recommendation for the entire first semester at the Oct. 5 board meeting.