New California rules mean most schools will start online

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Dusty Lego-style toys are scattered in the playground of an elementary school in Los Angeles, Friday, July 17, 2020. California Gov. Gavin Newsom laid out strict criteria Friday for school reopenings that makes it unlikely the vast majority of districts will have classroom instruction in the fall as the coronavirus pandemic surges. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

SAN FRANCISCO – With the first day of school just weeks away in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom laid out sweeping new rules Friday that all but ensure most of the state’s K-12 schools serving 6.7 million students will not reopen classrooms when the academic year starts.

The rules also mandate that all staff and students above 2nd grade who do return to campuses wear masks in school as the coronavirus pandemic surges.

Newsom said all schools, public and private, in counties that are on a state monitoring list for rising coronavirus infections cannot hold in-person classes and will have to meet strict criteria for reopening. Currently, 32 of California's 58 counties are on the list, encompassing the vast majority of the state's population and its biggest cities, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.

“Students, teachers, staff and parents prefer in-class instruction. But only if we can do it safely,” Newsom said during a televised briefing. “The one thing we have the power to do to get our kids back into school? Wear a mask, physically distance, wash your hands.”

The governor’s strict new regulations mark a dramatic shift from his earlier position that it was up to local school districts and boards to decide when and how to reopen. His announcement came as many of the state’s 1,000 school districts are set to resume instruction in mid-August, with many still finalizing reopening plans.

“Planning for the reopening of the 20-21 school year has really been a roller-coaster ride,” said Robert Meszaros, a spokesman for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools’ office. Kern County, north of Los Angeles, is not on the watch list but expects it could be soon and will be affected.

Meszaros said that while the governor's announcement wasn't unexpected, “it is very different from the directive that was given just a few short weeks ago when schools were encouraged to open for the 20-21 school year with in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible."

With many school districts struggling over the decision, teachers unions, parents and school officials have been urging Newsom to provide more direction on whether it is safe to return. This week, California reported its second-highest one-day totals in infection rates and deaths since the start of the pandemic. Nearly 7,500 people have died in California — more than 1,200 of them in the past two weeks.