Gov. Gavin Newsom stepped into the debate over reopening schools for the fall, declaring Friday that schools in counties on the state’s watchlist for worrisome COVID-19 outbreaks should begin fall instruction online only. Napa is one of those counties.
In Napa County, the Napa Valley Unified School District and the Howell Mountain Elementary School District had already announced a phased-in approach to returning to in-person learning, Barbara Nemko, Napa County superintendent of schools, said Friday.
Both the St. Helena Unified School District and the Calistoga Joint Unified School District will also be starting with distance learning, with details on their phase-in plans to be announced later this month, Nemko said.
Newsom has been under mounting pressure to keep classrooms closed for the fall as the pandemic surges across California and more and more districts put off plans to reopen.
“Safety is foundational, and safety will ultimately make the determination of how we educate our kids,” Newsom said in a noon news conference. “Schools must provide meaningful instruction during this pandemic whether they are physically open or not. Our students, our teachers, our staff and certainly our parents prefer in class instruction, but only if it can be done safely.”
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Newsom said that schools can reopen “when counties we’re monitoring are off our monitoring list for 14 days.” He noted that 32 of California’s 58 counties are on that watchlist, including most of those in the Bay Area.
The California Teachers Association last week wrote Newsom, state Superintendent Tony Thurmond and legislative leaders telling them “it is clear that communities and school districts have not come close to meeting the threshold for a safe return to in-person learning.”
The letter came a day after President Donald Trump urged schools to reopen classrooms, pointing to other countries that have done so without much problem.
Newsom’s Friday announcement came after a week that saw waves of school districts across the state put off plans to reopen classrooms to students, including the state’s two largest districts, Los Angeles and San Diego, and in the Bay Area, San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and Santa Clara.
Trustees with the Napa Valley Unified School District voted Thursday night not to resume on-campus instruction until the public health situation improved in Napa County.
Those concerns however come amid other worries about continuing the online-only learning experiment that went poorly for many students in the spring after the surging pandemic led to a statewide stay-home order. Many districts weren’t prepared to teach kids online, many teachers struggled with the technology and many students and their families lacked computers and home internet.
A study this month by Los Angeles Unified School District found that during the spring, the district’s most disadvantaged students — including ones who are Black, Latino and English learners — participated in online learning at lower rates than their peers and lost learning that could take them years to recoup.
Newsom — a father of four school-aged children himself — is well aware of those problems, and in April as the statewide lockdown slowed infections, the governor even suggested bringing kids back to class in July to make up for the learning loss. State budget bills urged districts to resume classroom instruction as much as possible.
Others also note that because children are the least likely to suffer severe illness from COVID-19 — none in California have died from it — and tend not to spread the disease, the harm of lost learning outweighs the health risks of kids returning to the classroom.
In fact, the Orange County Board of Education this week voted to recommend the county’s 27 districts reopen to students in the fall without requirements for masks and social distancing.
But California’s worsening outbreaks with just weeks to go before schools are scheduled to start have raised alarms. Newsom this week tightened restrictions on indoor activities as the number of counties on a state watch list for concerning coronavirus cases and hospitalizations reached 32, including most of the Bay Area.
The Napa Valley Register contributed to this story.
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