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Some La Jolla schools seek waivers as state gives more details for how elementary schools can reopen

Gillispie School in La Jolla is applying for a waiver that could allow it to reopen for in-person classes Sept. 1.
Gillispie School in La Jolla, which serves preschoolers through sixth-graders, is applying for a waiver that could allow it to reopen for in-person classes Sept. 1.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Schools will have to detail their plans for testing students and staff for the coronavirus and triggers for returning to distance learning.

Some La Jolla private schools say they are applying for state waivers under new criteria that mean elementary schools in San Diego County can apply for a chance to reopen, despite the state’s mandate that schools in counties struggling with COVID-19 offer online education only.

Gillispie School and La Jolla Country Day School said Aug. 5 that they are applying, and Stella Maris Academy said it is seriously considering it.

Elementary schools learned recently that they can apply for waivers, but initially the state’s criteria for them were not specific. On Aug. 4, the state released more-detailed criteria and a waiver application form for schools to complete.

The waivers would allow exceptions to the state’s requirement that all public and private schools remain closed in counties like San Diego that are on the state’s COVID watch list, until they get off the list for two consecutive weeks. The waivers would come from county health departments.

The state says elementary schools can apply only if they are in a county with a COVID-19 coronavirus case rate at or below 200 per 100,000 people.

Under that measure, schools in San Diego County and most counties on the watch list can apply. Los Angeles is one of the counties that cannot apply.

Schools can only apply to reopen for transitional kindergarten through sixth grade. Several studies have suggested that young children are less likely to transmit the coronavirus than older children, teenagers and adults.

Applicant schools must show they have consulted with — but not necessarily gotten the approval of — parent and community groups, as well as staff. School districts and schools that have labor unions must consult with them.

Elementary schools also have to post reopening plans on their websites. The plans must follow state guidance and address several topics, such as keeping students in the same small groups each day, having students and staff wear masks, physical distancing, testing students and staff for the coronavirus and setting triggers for reverting to distance learning if someone at school gets the virus.

The county also will have to consider health data, such as the rate of new coronavirus cases, the percentages of positive tests and hospitalization trends in communities.

The state criteria do not say what levels those data should be at for a school to get a waiver.

The county also must consider the availability of COVID-19 testing and the school’s ability to investigate and respond to cases.

The county must notify the state health department about each application. The state has three days to ask questions or relay concerns before a county approves or denies an application.

The county can attach conditions to the approval of a waiver, such as requiring that elementary schools reopen in phases.

Schools have to apply at least two weeks before they want to open.

San Diego County Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten said she expects many schools will apply.

At Gillispie School, a private campus on Girard Avenue in La Jolla, a school representative said it is applying for the waiver and working to outline how it will meet each guideline.

The school plans to open Sept. 1 with in-person classes if the waiver application is approved.

La Jolla Country Day School Head of School Gary Krahn said LJCDS “is applying for the elementary school waiver for kindergarten through grade 6. Thanks to the remarkable efforts of our academic and operations team, we are prepared to reopen school safely.”

Krahn said the reopening protocols will include “physical distancing, including [an] indoor/outdoor learning model; face covering requirements; health screenings; on-campus testing for all faculty, staff and students, using Sofia SARS Antigen FIA, Sofia 2 analyzers by Quidel, a San Diego company; increased cleaning protocols, including validating our cleaning methods using ATP testing and Chai COVID-19 environmental surface testing; along with a myriad of other health and safety initiatives.”

The first day of school for LJCDS is set for Aug. 19.

Francie Moss, principal of Stella Maris Academy, said the La Jolla Catholic school “is definitely considering applying for the waiver,” having obtained a sample application and prepared the required information. The Catholic Diocese of San Diego has said the diocese plans to apply.

Moss said she is “currently awaiting word from the diocese to receive permission to move forward. It is unclear if the application is to be filed by me for my school or by the diocese for all Catholic schools.”

Moss said a parent survey indicated the majority prefer returning to in-person learning as soon as possible.

Other La Jolla schools, including the public San Diego Unified School District and the private San Diego French American School, The Children’s School and All Hallows Academy, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. San Diego Unified announced July 13 that it would start the school year Aug. 31 with distance learning.

The district’s new distance learning ground rules set higher standards than distance learning in the spring.

San Diego County has gradually been lowering its coronavirus case rate. As of Aug. 4, the rate was 114.9 per 100,000 people, according to the county website. That was down from 139.4 about a week before.

The county needs to keep the rate at 100 or below for two consecutive weeks in order for all schools to reopen.

To achieve that, San Diego County would have to report 240 or fewer new coronavirus cases daily for two weeks straight, Wooten said. It reported 290 new cases and three more deaths Aug. 4. ◆