County officials to schools: Prepare for students to wear masks

Children wear masks at Cajon Valley child care program
Schools should prepare as if masks will be mandatory for all students and staff on reopened campuses, according to the county Office of Education. In the photo, children play during the Cajon Valley Union School District’s emergency child care program in May.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A six- or seven-day school week, a longer school year, holding classes in a community theater or in a school cafeteria — those are some of the suggestions San Diego County school officials made for schools to reopen in coming months from their coronavirus-driven closure.

The county Office of Education published new guidance June 17 that offers suggestions — not mandates — for schools to follow, providing a clearer picture of what changes at schools could look like.

Schools will have to make drastic, and likely expensive, changes to scheduling, staffing and the use of school spaces to allow for physical distancing and provide flexibility and choice for parents, school officials said recently.

The county office created its COVID-19 Recovery and Reopening Plan based on state and federal health guidelines and after consulting with local public health officials.

Schools should prepare as if masks will be mandatory for all students and staff on campus, the county office said.

“Masks or face coverings will likely become ubiquitous in our society as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with school campuses no exception,” Adrienne Konigar-Macklin, general counsel for the county education office, said in a letter to school districts.

San Diego County already requires everyone 2 and older to have a face mask when outside and within six feet of someone who is not part of the same household.

The state is providing the county with millions of masks to help ensure every student gets one. The county office said it will soon receive more than 1 million cloth masks, more than 1 million disposable masks, 99,000 disposable face shields and 12,300 gallon-size jugs of hand sanitizer.

That’s enough for every student to get two cloth and two disposable masks, every staff member to get two cloth masks and four disposable masks and every teacher to get four face shields.

Every school nurse would get an N-95 mask for every 44 days, and every school would get four thermometers and 12 hand sanitizer jugs.

The mask requirement would be on top of mandatory daily temperature and symptom checks for every person on campus, as required by state guidance for schools. Anyone with symptoms is not to be allowed on campus.

One of the biggest problems schools will face is how to find enough room for students to learn because of physical-distancing requirements. Traditional-size classrooms can fit only about 10 students with physical distancing, the county office said.

“It really is the challenge of rethinking the way we do school. It’s rethinking how students are together, how our employees are together on campus, rethinking all of our traditions,” said county schools spokeswoman Music Watson.

Schools could use spaces such as their gyms, libraries, cafeterias, theaters and outdoor tables as classrooms, the county suggested. They also could make agreements with groups such as the YMCA, libraries or churches to use community spaces for classes.

Schools could extend their school year to last from, say, early July or early August to late June to help students who have experienced learning loss during the pandemic to catch up, the county office suggested.

Schools could use a “track system” for year-round schooling, in which three or four tracks of students would have vacation at different times. That would allow schools to increase their space capacity by a third, the county office said, and lessen learning loss by shortening the time students are on vacation.

Schools also could open six or seven days a week to reduce the number of students on campus at a time. And they could extend the school day and have students go to school in shifts to allow for lower capacity.

Those are costly options. If a school can afford only to have students go to campus during traditional hours, it may be able to offer students only two days a week of instruction due to space constraints, according to the guidance.

Many, if not most, school districts in the county are preparing to offer a choice in how students learn next school year: They can be on campus or continue distance learning from home. Some districts will offer a combination of both.

The San Diego Unified School District board approved a fall reopening plan June 16 that will let families choose from two options: full in-person learning, and distance learning with options for onsite activities.

June 18, 2020

The county office suggested that distance learning would be appropriate not only for students who have health risks or whose families have safety concerns but also for students who already are getting high grades or for mature students who can work independently.

In-person learning would be more appropriate for young students and those who have greater needs, the county suggested, such as most students with disabilities, English-learners, foster and homeless youths, students who lack access to technology or academic support at home and students who get poor grades.

Before making any changes, schools will have to figure out how to stretch their staff to accommodate so many changes and determine whether they can afford them.

The state budget is not yet finalized, and it’s unclear whether it will result in budget cuts for schools. State leaders are counting on federal officials to provide more money to schools, but that’s far from guaranteed.

Some have expressed concern that schools could face more liability if they reopen and someone at school gets COVID-19. But the county office says schools won’t face more liability than usual.

“The issue would be whether or not schools have followed the proper steps and procedures as outlined by public health,” Watson said. ◆