Local News

California quietly launches new school reopening exemption process

There is a new way school districts can apply to reopen their campuses even if their county doesn’t meet the COVID case rate thresholds set by the state — but only certain schools will qualify for the exemption.

This week California’s public health department published a new appeal process that would allow schools to potentially reopen if they do not qualify under the state’s current school reopening guidance — if they believed they qualified under the state’s old guidance, which expired Jan. 14.

Schools can only apply and be approved for an exemption to reopen if they were, as of Jan. 14, “actively in the process of bringing back additional students for in-person instruction as part of a phased reopening plan,” according to the department.

The new appeal process is meant to be narrowly applied and will only pertain to certain schools in specific circumstances, said Bob Mueller, coordinator of special projects for the San Diego County Office of Education.

“It is not an opportunity for any school to reopen,” Mueller said.

The county education office does not enforce state or local guidance and is independent of San Diego County.

The state recently published a few details about this appeal process, which it calls a “safety review request,” on a relatively obscure webpage. As of Thursday, the webpage did not detail what schools would have to prove to get a safety review request approved.

For months the state had said schools cannot reopen while their county is in the most-restrictive purple tier, but there already have been exceptions.

For instance, there is an exception for elementary schools, which can get approval to reopen during the purple tier if their county case rate is below 25 per 100,000 residents.

Also any schools that had opened before a county fell to the purple tier can stay open and expand their reopening to more students during the purple tier.

San Diego County fell to the purple tier on Nov. 10, and by then, many private schools and some school districts in the county had reopened. However other districts, such as San Diego Unified, have not reopened for general in-person instruction but are providing limited in-person services to small groups of students in need.

There has been confusion among some school leaders, teachers and community members about what the state meant by “reopened” schools, because the state did not give an exact definition — until Jan. 14.

That day the state declared that schools only qualified as reopened if they have offered in-person instruction to all students in at least one grade level. Those schools could open further despite the purple tier designation.

That interrupted the reopening plans of some local districts — including Carlsbad Unified and San Dieguito Union High — whose officials had believed they qualified as “reopened” because they were serving some students on campus. But they did not meet the new definition.

The new appeal process may let such districts continue to reopen.

“The (state public health department) realized that … people were operating in good faith, believing they were doing the right thing, working with their school communities and their employee associations and in some places operating programs with kids on campuses,” Mueller said.

“And then the Jan. 14 guidance came out and blindsided them. In some cases, that caused them to retreat on programs, and that retreat might not have been in the best interest of kids.”

There is no deadline for districts seeking safety review requests to reopen.

The new appeal process also would allow schools to apply for exemptions from the state’s requirement that there be at least four feet of social distancing between student chairs in classrooms.

Schools can only apply for this exemption if they were open for in-person instruction by Jan. 14, have shown good-faith efforts to meet the new distancing requirement, and would be forced to send students home to distance learning in order to meet the requirement.

Schools or districts seeking the social distancing exemption must notify the state public health department by Feb. 17 that they intend to apply for a safety review request. Once that letter of intent is approved, the school or district must submit a safety review request form, which the state’s Safe Schools for All Team will approve, deny, or request more information for within seven business days.