CDE webinar offers insights into new guidance, fields key COVID questions

A Sept. 9 California Department of Education webinar drawing 1,300 attendees provided local educational agencies with clarity on updated guidance for in-person, small group instruction, as well as a deeper dive into the Blueprint for a Safer Economy and its impacts on K–12 schools.

Officials from the CDE, California Department of Public Health and the Governor’s Office also fielded a number of COVID-19 questions from education organizations around testing needs, personal protective equipment supplies and costs, and what the future may hold. Several of the key questions posed, including from CSBA, are largely unanswered for the time being as the state continues to fine-tune its new system and prepares further guidance.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond opened the webinar by acknowledging the tremendously difficult situation facing LEAs. “You’re dealing with unimaginable circumstances. The pandemic itself, exacerbated by fires and air quality,” as well as racial justice issues, Thurmond said. “All of these things take a toll on us and they add to the many questions that we continue to ask about what we must do to move forward safely. But we must move forward safely.”

Answers around cohort guidance and color-coded reopening system

Asked whether smaller schools or districts can use the cohort guidance to bring a majority of students back to campus, Dr. Erica Pan, California State Epidemiologist and the Acting State Health Officer, said that is not at all the intent. “We want this to be a stable cohort, with no mixing between groups,” she said. “This is for a subset of children with special needs and not a substitute for schools reopening. We want to make sure that special needs children, children that really are being impacted even more from not having in-person instruction, that a very small number of those could come back to some in-person instruction.”

Reiterating information sent by CSBA to its members on Sept. 4, Pan said that the updated guidance permits more adults to be in the cohort as long as the total number of individuals in the group does not exceed 16. She also clarified that LEAs do not need to apply to the state to implement cohorts but should check with their local public health department.

On a larger scale, explaining the most important aspects of the state’s color-coded tier system, Pan said an LEA can open for in-person instruction once its county has been in the red tier for 14 days, but suggested they may want to wait a little longer to reopen. “We want to gradually and safely do this in a very deliberate way,” she said. “And we know that flu season is just around the corner.”

Dennis Meyers, CSBA Executive Director for Governmental Relations, asked how districts with schools in more than one county should use the system, to which Pan largely deferred to coordination with local public health departments. Pan also said that the current county status page will soon include more information so that LEAs have a clearer view of how their county is progressing. “Bear with us a little bit,” she said. “We’re working out a few kinks as we work out this new system.”

Less clarity around personal protective equipment, testing needs

While the state has delivered PPE and cleaning supplies to last an average LEA roughly two months once open for in-person instruction, David Schapira of the California School Employees Association expressed concern about future costs and supply issues.

Ben Chida, deputy cabinet secretary for Gov. Gavin Newsom, said that the Office of Emergency Services and Governor’s Office will continue to use their purchasing power to leverage lower costs and access for these supplies. In the meantime, he offered the $5.3 billion in Learning Loss Mitigation Funding as an avenue for LEAs. “It’s both a virtue and a vice,” he said of the funding pot. “It can be used for purchases like these, but the downside is that we know there are many needs for schools right now.”

Asked for more concrete answers on staff and student testing by the California Teachers Association, Pan revealed that the state is working on additional guidance on testing in schools, particularly around increasing surveillance in communities with high spread.

But while the state government is leading the high-level fight against COVID-19, Chida and Pan advised that local labor and management must continue working closely with their local health departments to resolve myriad issues around testing, distance learning plans and the procurement of PPE.

“You want to hear the right answer coming from Dr. Pan or from CDHP,” Chida said. “Folks in the schools context know, better than nearly any sector, that things that just work better when there’s planning happening and collaboration happening robustly between different actors at the local level… That’s really going to be the way forward.”