New school year, new rules and guidance related to COVID-19

By Heather Bailey, Senior Editor, SoCoNews, August 11, 2021

kids at school

Students walk up to a classroom at Jefferson Elementary in Cloverdale on April 12, 2021.

On Aug. 10 the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) and members of the county’s department of health team came together to provide a webinar to educate parents, students, families, teachers and other school staff about what the new school year will look like, even as it starts in the shadow of the “fourth wave” of COVID-19. The webinar was comprised of two parts: a presentation from school and public health staff, followed by a Q&A portion with community members submitting questions via email and on Facebook.

“Many want to know the conditions for this school year,” said Sonoma County Superintendent of School Dr. Steve Herrington. “Last year was about shelter and protect, this year that has changed.

“All schools must follow the guidance set forth by the California Department of Health,” Herrington said, but added that just as in the previous year, guidance can change quickly as the virus, its status and its variants change. “SCOE works closely with health experts and school communities to adapt quickly to changing virus conditions an understand the healthiest and safest measures for schools to take, and we will keep you posted as changes happen.”

All schools will be opening for full-time, in-person instruction, and distance learning or hybrid learning programs utilized in the previous year will no longer be available. Masks will be required for all students and staff — known as universal masking — but the social distancing requirements have been eliminated, which is what allows the return of all students to class. Individual schools have some leeway on determining if masks must be worn outdoors, but indoors it is required.

The other big change is that quarantine rules have changed for exposed, non-symptomatic students. As long as universal masking is in place on the school campus, an exposure will not require students to quarantine at home, rather, they can remain in the classroom as long as they remain quarantined at home the rest of the day and do twice weekly testing for a 10- to 14-day period.

“When a child is exposed to a COVID-19 case, they have a few different options,” said Jenni Straight, a nurse on the schools team for the county department of health. “If exposure happens at school and the student is K-12 ,they are eligible for modified quarantine programs if both the infected and the contact are fully masked. Students can stay in school for a 10-day quarantine period and test two times weekly.”

Similarly, rules on closing classrooms or schools have also changed. “If there are one or two cases in a classroom, we don’t close down classrooms or schools,” Straight said. “We now go on a case-by-case basis. If we have a cluster of cases, if they all seem to be connected epidemiologically, we may close that classroom to step back and reassess. If we have multiple classrooms with multiple outbreaks — three or more per class — we may have to close schools. But we have seen schools in general are safe, there’s not a lot of transmissions at schools.”

“We want to try to minimize impacts on schools by contract tracing those exposed and limit the number of classes we need to close,” said Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase. “It depends on the school, the size, how many kids in the class, a lot of variables. It will be case-by-case decision making.”

Herrington added that volunteering or otherwise entering a school campus will not be a free-for-all this year, in an attempt to keep schools a “sheltered environment.” While there is currently no state or county mandate, it is likely that schools or districts will require volunteers to be vaccinated or test weekly.

For those families that may not feel comfortable sending their students back, districts are required to offer students an independent study program. If a district is too small to offer a program in-house, they must provide appropriate transfer permission so a student can utilize programs offered in other districts. According to Herrington, some districts will be offering their own programs, while others will be utilizing third-party vendors.

He recommended families contact their schools and districts directly to get a full picture of their options. All districts are required to be surveying families now about their needs.

Additional questions

These are a sampling of questions asked and answered during the Q&A portion of the webinar.

What is the state’s reasoning on not having distance learning options available, given the Delta variant and rising case rates?

Distance learning created hybrid classes and schedules, which made it difficult to get parents back to work. Lawmakers wanted the economy to grow so that’s why no hybrid model.

What are the recommendations for cleaning and sanitizing is there is an exposure at school site?

If a positive case is confirmed, right now it’s a simple recommendation: if they were there within 24 hours then they should do full disinfection and cleaning of area where they spent time, and high touch surfaces like their desk, etc.

Should students be eating lunch indoors or outdoors?

The guidance maximizes physical distance as much as possible when eating, including potentially assigned seating, especially indoors. Ideally, students would eat outdoors as much as possible. But each school site has different facilities and numbers of students, so each will have to figure out what works best on a sit-by-site basis.

What about sports this year? What will happen if positive case happens on sports team?

It is anticipated that shortly the state will release further guidance specifically addressing sports teams, but at the moment all schools and teams are still operating under last year’s rules. Many sports are considered high contact exposure so quarantine is 10 to 14 days following exposure. Similarly, choral and woodwind programs are still considered high risk and are still under last year’s restrictions.

Do I have the right to ask my child’s teacher if they are vaccinated and will they require staff to be vaccinated?

While you can certainly ask a teacher if they are vaccinated — it is not a HIPPA violation — they are not required to answer you. As long as the vaccine remains under an emergency approval, it cannot be mandated, but at some point in the future the vaccine will likely get full FDA approval, at which point it could be mandated like other vaccines are for children and staff.

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