What’s Going On With California Schools?

As summer winds down, the question on most parents’ minds is, “When do public schools start back up?” Although this is a simple question, it has a complex answer. While all California schools will be offering classes in the fall, most of them will operate on a distance learning model.

That’s due to an announcement made on July 17 by Gov. Gavin Newsom. He said that, due to coronavirus concerns, California schools can’t offer in-person classes unless they’re located in counties that:

  • Have fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 people (or have a positive coronavirus test rate of less than 8%)
  • Aren’t hospitalizing more than 10% of their confirmed COVID-19 patients 
  • Don’t have a limited hospital capacity (defined as having less than 20% of their ICU Beds available or less than 25% of their ventilators available)

Unfortunately, neither San Bernardino County nor San Diego County meet those criteria. They’re both on California’s COVID-19 watchlist.

The Situation in San Diego County & San Bernardino County 

In San Bernardino County, transmissions of COVID-19 have increased due to:

  • Large social gatherings
  • Workplaces neglecting to implement precautions
  • Patients being transferred from Imperial County
  • Unsafe conditions in nursing homes, jails and prisons. 

Currently, San Bernardino County has 325 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people [Aug. 11]. The California Department of Health says that the county needs to address this by expanding and speeding up their testing, better safeguarding its prisons and nursing homes, encouraging all residents to wear masks and social distance, and implementing stronger contract tracing measures. 

In San Diego County, COVID-19 is also spreading rapidly. To attempt to contain the virus, county officials have closed restaurants and bars, sent strike teams to nursing homes and implemented more stringent contact-tracing measures. However, as of Aug. 8, they’re reporting just under 110 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people.

According to Gov. Newsom’s order, San Diego County and San Bernardino County schools can’t open until they’ve stayed off California’s COVID-19 watchlist for 14 days in a row. Even though many agree that stopping coronavirus transmission is important, both teachers and parents have concerns about the effectiveness of distance learning. 

Distance Learning: What Parents and Teachers Think 

When parents ask, “When do public schools start back up?” what they’re really asking is when are schools opening back up in-person. That’s because, for many families, it’s a huge challenge to arrange childcare during school hours. In addition, children with special needs may require more focused support than online classes can provide. Online classes also aren’t accessible to everyone, as some families don’t have computers or a stable, high-speed internet connection. But these aren’t the only issues with distance learning. 

Distance Learning Can’t Replace Face-to-Face Instruction

Last spring, distance learning failed to work well for many students. This may have been due to a lack of preparation time, as the quick spread of COVID-19 across the U.S. forced many schools to stop holding in-person classes rather suddenly. However, because many school officials believed that they’d be allowed to offer a hybrid of remote and in-person instruction in the fall of 2020, they may not have taken the time necessary to craft a high-quality online curriculum, according to some researchers

To correct this problem, state officials have made $5.3 billion in funds available to help schools improve their distance learning programs. 

“In-person, face-to-face instruction we believe is the best for our students, and we thought we could pull it off, especially in elementary with social distancing,” Sanger Unified Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Tim Lopez told EdSource. “But we know it’s important to limit the community spread, so we want to be a part of that.” Young boy wearing a mask to protect against coronavirus and emerging Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children

Wait, Isn’t Coronavirus Not That Dangerous for Kids?

According to the CDC, some children who have contracted COVID-19 have also suffered from a condition called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome (MIS-C). MIS-C adversely affects children’s bodies, including their hearts, lungs, kidneys, brains, skin, eyes, and gastrointestinal organs. The CDC isn’t sure how MIS-C and COVID-19 are related, but doctors are currently working on a number of therapies for it, including intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) therapy.

While MIS-C isn’t usually fatal, researchers are concerned that it may cause long-term heart damage. To protect your child from MIS-C, the CDC recommends all the usual COVID-19 precautions, such as handwashing, social distancing, and avoiding social gatherings. Because schools aren’t holding in-person classes, these safety measures may be easier to implement now than when face-to-face classes resume.

What Needs to Happen Before Schools Can Reopen Safely?

While San Diego County and San Bernardino County schools plan on taking numerous safety measures when they reopen, including asking staff to wear masks and get tested for coronavirus regularly, epidemiologists say that communities with high COVID-19 transmission rates shouldn’t open until they can get infection rates down.

When interviewed by The Atlantic, pediatrician, molecular virologist, and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine Peter Hotez said that the push to open schools is sure to fail. 

“In communities with high transmission, it’s inevitable that COVID-19 will enter the schools. Within two weeks of opening schools in communities with high virus transmission, teachers will become ill,” he said. “All it will take is for a single teacher to become hospitalized with COVID and everything will shut down.”

However, Hotez also said that schools could be reopened as early as October, if the federal government is willing to execute a federal containment plan. In countries with a stronger COVID-19 response, life is slowly returning back to normal. However, a federal containment plan would require strong agreement and cooperation between various branches of the U.S. government, which is difficult to achieve at the moment. 

Potential School Opening Dates

While middle schools and high schools are subject to Gov. Newsom’s closure mandate, elementary schools are allowed to apply for reopening waivers. This is because young children represent a relatively low percentage of COVID-19 cases. 

To get a waiver, public, private and charter elementary schools in San Diego County or San Bernardino County will have to:

  • Be located in a county with a COVID-19 case rate of 200 per 100,000 people or less AND possess health data trends that don’t concern county officials
  • Have consulted with teacher’s unions, parents, and community groups
  • Be able to provide detailed social distancing and infection response plans

As of Aug. 10, San Bernardino County elementary schools aren’t eligible for waivers, but San Diego County elementary schools are.


ABC7. Gov. Gavin Newsom announces which California school districts can reopen in the fall. https://abc7.com/gov-newsom-update-today-schools-california-reopening-covid/6321702/

ABC7. Coronavirus watch list: California counties where COVID-19 is getting worse https://abc7.com/california-coronavirus-cases-by-county-counties-where-is-worst-covid-19-update-palm-springs-outbreak/6267842/

LA Times. Tracking the coronavirus in San Bernardino County. https://www.latimes.com/projects/california-coronavirus-cases-tracking-outbreak/san-bernardino-county/

CBS8. San Diego County reports 551 new COVID-19 cases, seven deaths. https://www.cbs8.com/article/news/health/coronavirus/coronavirus-numbers/august-8-coronavirus-numbers/509-6e82ac5d-a3f5-4ed2-866d-5bf9ae1e3274

EdSource. California school districts brace for an online back-to-school season. https://edsource.org/2020/california-schools-brace-for-continued-distance-learning-in-the-fall/636626

The Atlantic. ‘This Push to Open Schools Is Guaranteed to Fail’. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/08/push-reopen-schools-fail/614869/

California Department of Public Health. County Data Monitoring


San Diego Union-Tribune. San Diego County schools barred from reopening until COVID-19 numbers improve. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/education/story/2020-07-17/all-san-diego-county-schools-are-banned-from-reopening-until-covid-19-measures-improve

San Diego Union-Tribune. Schools can seek waivers to reopen from San Diego County but criteria are unclear. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/education/story/2020-07-25/its-not-clear-yet-how-san-diego-county-will-review-school-reopening-waivers

PB Monthly. State gives more details for how San Diego County elementary schools can reopen with waivers. https://www.pbmonthly.net/news/story/2020-08-05/state-gives-more-details-for-how-san-diego-county-elementary-schools-can-reopen-with-waivers

Elsevier. COVID19 in America: An October Plan. https://www.journals.elsevier.com/microbes-and-infection/the-novel-coronavirus-sars-cov-2/covid19-in-america-an-october-plan