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Reopening Placer County Schools: COVID-19 Testing Requirements Causing Confusion

ROCKLIN (CBS13) — Placer County was one of the first counties to fall off the state's watch list, allowing schools to reopen for in-person learning after 14 days.

That means schools may technically be allowed to reopen to in-person learning, but confusion over coronavirus testing requirements has caused at least one school district to change its mind about reopening.

"I got a text from (my daughter) in all capital letters, basically to the effect of, yay, we finally get to go back to school," said Jeremy Veldstra, a Rocklin dad.

When Veldstra's daughters learned Placer County had dropped off the state's watch list last week, they were thrilled. Rocklin Unified had previously voted to begin the school year with a hybrid model and last week the district announced plans to reopen on Sept. 8.

"That was just super exciting to see (their reaction)," Veldstra said.

However, that excitement quickly turned to frustration when the district back-tracked Friday, stating, "Placer County health officials are recommending all school districts delay any kind of school re-opening" citing "a lack of timely COVID- 19 testing" available in the county.

"I was frustrated," Veldstra said.

And he's not alone. Hundreds on Facebook voiced their frustration. Many also voiced their support for the district.

Then came Placer County's response which contradicted the school district:

"Contrary to a Rocklin Unified School District statement on August 21, Placer County Public Health has not recommended delaying school reopening for in-person instruction. While Placer County Public Health has discussed the risks of reopening schools without adequate testing, this was neither intended nor should it be construed as formal guidance nor a public health directive. Formal guidance for school reopening was issued July 17 by the California Department of Public Health."

"At that point, I was, I didn't know who to be frustrated with," Veldstra said. "I would like an answer, but what's more important to me is that I get the correct information so that we're not doing this flip flop."

The correct information is that there are two sets of testing guidance. One set of requirements is for schools that apply for a waiver to reopen while a county is on the watch list. There is a separate state guidance for schools that are reopening to in-person learning after the county is off the watch list for 14 days.

It's important to note that the waivers only apply to elementary school students while the reopening guidance applies to all grades.

Some of the confusion among Placer County schools stems from the fact that the waiver process began right before Placer County dropped off the watch list. Some schools are getting responses to their waiver applications at the same time that other schools and districts are getting recommendations about reopening next week at the end of the 14-day period.

To qualify for a waiver in Placer County, a school must describe how it plans to ensure that students and teachers with symptoms can be tested within 48 hours and get results within 72 hours of the test. Technically, the wavier application, which is based on the state template, requires students and staff with symptoms to be "rapidly tested."

Placer County tells CBS13 it was repeatedly asked by schools for a definition of what that meant. So, citing "leading health institutions," health officers defined "rapid testing" as access to testing within 24-48 hours and results within 48-72 hours.

The county points out, however, that the average turnaround time for testing through the state-operated OptumServe sites in Placer County is much longer than 72 hours. This means schools would likely have to contract with a private lab to meet the testing criteria to reopen with a waiver.

In contrast, once a county is off the watch list for 14 days, state guidance does not have a specific testing turn-around requirement. The state guidance specifies that students and staff with symptoms should be sent home and it "recommends" testing. However, testing is not required and the guidance references testing "as lab capacity allows."

Even if the county goes back on the watch list, the guidance states that schools should "increase frequency of staff testing" but there is no requirement for rapid test results, and "schools are not required to close."

CBS13 has learned at least two schools in Placer County have already been granted a waiver to reopen, meaning they've likely secured some kind of rapid coronavirus testing for students and teachers. However, if the county stays off the watch list until next Wednesday, all schools would be allowed to reopen without that kind of required testing.

Parents and students in the Rocklin Unified School District tell us, that hasn't been clear.

The Rocklin Unified School District acknowledged this week that the rapid testing was not a "mandate." However, the superintendent said they plan to keep schools closed to in-person learning for now.

"Until we are able to meet these safety precautions, we will remain in distance learning for the time being. We are also working with PCPH to increase testing for schools. I will let you know as soon as we have information to share," the superintendent said in an email to parents.

Placer County clarified that it has stressed the importance of timely testing to contain COVID-19 and to avoid outbreaks that would lead to school closures.

"By request of schools last week, we did provide them the following quote: 'Public Health recommends that schools have a plan to quickly test symptomatic students and staff before reopening for in-person instruction – by detecting infections early, such testing will assist schools in staying open given the State's thresholds for closure.'"

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