La Jolla elementary schools can seek waivers from county to reopen classrooms, but criteria are unclear

Gillispie School in La Jolla had planned to open for in-person instruction Sept. 1.
Gillispie School in La Jolla planned to open for in-person instruction Sept. 1, before Gov. Gavin Newsom’s July 17 order to keep classrooms closed in counties on the state’s COVID-19 watch list, including San Diego County.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

There is a way some schools can get permission to reopen classrooms despite a state school closure order, but the exact criteria for getting that permission have yet to be finalized in San Diego County.

Under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent order, public and private schools in counties on the state’s COVID-19 watch list are not allowed to reopen their campuses until their county gets and stays off the list for two consecutive weeks. San Diego County is on the list.

But there is an exception to the school closure mandate. District superintendents can apply for a waiver from their county health officials that would allow schools to reopen. Only elementary schools are eligible for the waiver, because studies show that younger children are less likely to transmit or get sick from COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that as of July 17, children accounted for less than 7 percent of COVID-19 cases and less than 0.1 percent of related deaths.

With schools not permitted to offer in-person instruction because of the continuing coronavirus outbreak, many parents are looking for alternatives as their schools prepare to start the academic year online.

The San Diego Unified School District, which has five public schools in La Jolla, announced days before Newsom’s July 17 order that it had decided to delay in-person instruction and would open the school year Aug. 31 with online learning. SDUSD said this week that nothing has changed with its plans.

But some private schools in La Jolla were planning to open with in-person instruction before the order allowed schools to only conduct classes online.

Gillispie School, which serves students from age 2 to sixth grade, was preparing for a Sept. 1 opening on campus, as it is “able to meet current San Diego County and California state safety guidelines,” marketing and communication lead Brittany Kaszas told the Light on July 14. “What is of great benefit to us as an independent school is the age of our students, low student/teacher ratios, campus layout and access to spaces for outdoor classrooms. For our elementary students, we are focusing efforts on on-campus learning with an online option for those families who are not ready to have their children on campus.”

Those plans changed upon Newsom’s order. But Kaszas said this week that Gillispie “is exploring this waiver and all other avenues for reopening for safe in-person learning in the fall.”

The Light reached out to several other private La Jolla elementary schools about whether they had explored applying for the waiver, but none responded.

The state order says a county health officer must “consider local data” and consult with the state health department when considering waivers. But the state has not given details about what local data should be considered or what criteria the data should meet.

For now, the county says the waivers must include “consensus from the community and the teachers,” said county spokesman Michael Workman, but it’s unclear how each school district would show it has a consensus. ◆