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California Schools Chief Says Some Districts Can Open Safely

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - California's education chief on Wednesday applauded the state's two largest school districts, Los Angeles and San Diego, for this week's decision not to reopen classrooms this fall amid rising coronavirus cases but said the same rules need not apply in counties with low rates of infection.

With three weeks until some districts go back to school, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond called for "an abundance of caution" as many of California's 1,000 school districts finalize plans for the new school term.

"In any place where there is uncertainty, we should proceed with caution. In many cases, that's going to be opening in distance learning," Thurmond said in a weekly media briefing held online.

However, there is no one-size-fits-all template for reopening schools, and classroom learning can still happen in counties or districts where it can be done safely, he said.

Many small, rural communities argue they shouldn't have to comply with the same rules as big cities, where infection rates are higher, and Thurmond indicated Wednesday he agreed.

"We have some counties in this state where the number of cases is actually quite low," he said. "Schools in those counties will actually be able to open and, if they're following the guidance that our experts have provided - hand washing, 6 feet of spacing, maintaining physical distance and of course, everyone wearing a face covering - we believe that those schools can open safely."

California's Department of Education released a detailed guide in early June for the safe reopening of schools. The guide laid out recommendations for taking temperature upon entering buses and schools, spacing out desks, cutting class sizes and rigorous cleaning of campuses and hand sanitizing for students and staff. But that was before California's case count exploded.

"Since we've issued our guidance, conditions have changed dramatically," Thurmond said.

The Los Angeles and San Diego school districts, the two largest in California with a combined K-12 student population of about 720,000, announced Monday their school years will begin next month with distance learning because of rising coronavirus hospitalizations and infection rates.

"We applaud the superintendents and school boards in Los Angeles and San Diego for making the decision to say, 'Lets open 'safely,' " Thurmond said.

LA and San Diego are the latest in a growing number of California school districts choosing to start the new term with digital learning amid strong concerns from teachers unions about the safety of staff on school campuses.

Oakland, Long Beach and San Bernardino districts are among those that already have said they will start off with distance learning. Some districts are considering a mix of distance learning and classroom instruction with few students in the room.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press.

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