California Governor Gavin Newsom announced Friday that schools located in counties on the state's monitoring list for potential COVID-19 outbreaks will not be able to open their classrooms this fall, forcing millions of students to continue with distance learning.
More than 80% of California's population live in 32 of the 58 counties that are on the state's watchlist. Those counties can only open their schools once they have been off the list for 14 consecutive days.
Newsom told reporters on Friday that he prefers in-class instruction, but only if it can be done safely. He cited a rise in coronavirus cases in California and the state's inability so far to flatten the curve as reasons for his decision to limit school openings.
"We have to do it in a way that can guarantee the health of not just our kids, but also those that are entrusted with their care," Newsom said. He added that schools "must provide meaningful instruction during this pandemic" whether they are open or not.
Schools in counties that will be able to open have to conduct regular health screenings, periodic testing of all staff, ensure physical distancing, and require students in the third grade and above to wear a mask. The state has already delivered more than 18 million face coverings to schools across California.
"Safety is the foundation, and safety will ultimately make the determination on how we go about educating our kids as we move into the fall," Newsom said.
The governor also laid out guidelines that would trigger closures if students or staff at schools in counties not on the monitoring list begin to test positive for the coronavirus. He said schools would have to close if 5% or more of their population is infected with the virus. Additionally, Newsom said if at least 25% of schools in a single district reach that threshold, the entire district would be forced to shut down in-person teaching.
Several school districts, including large ones like Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, and Santa Clara have already announced plans to put off in-person learning for students.
The Trump administration has made it clear that re-opening schools is an important part of its agenda moving forward. Mr. Trump has on several occasions said that schools must open in the fall, and Vice President Pence has echoed that message, stating that reopening schools goes hand-in-hand with reopening the country.
Last Tuesday, President Trump held a roundtable event at the White House to discuss the issue and said it is very important for the country and the well being of students and parents to reopen schools.
"We are very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools," Mr. Trump said. "We will put out the fires as they come up but we have to open our schools," he added. The next day Mr. Trump tweeted that he "may cut off funding" if schools aren't open in the fall.
On Friday, Newsom said he recognizes and understands the president's insistence to open schools from an economic paradigm, adding that he respects and appreciates the conversations taking place.
"I am not looking to score cheap political points with people that have different points of view," Newsom said. "We all recognize as parents the need, not only to get our kids back to school, where they are healthy and safe, but also for us to get back to work as well," he added.
But, Newsom stressed that ultimately it is the responsibility of governors, superintendents, and county health officers to move forward safely.
"We're not just talking about our children, we are also talking about those we entrust our children with," Newsom said. "It is an ecosystem, our public education system, our education system broadly, and we are responsible to address the needs of that ecosystem."