(Editor’s Note: The following is a statement submitted by Stanislaus County Public Health Officer Dr. Julie Vaishampayan.)
During the past couple weeks many parents in our community prepared their children to go back to school. This year’s back to school was not a normal experience with the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is not where we wanted to be this fall.
Despite the challenges this pandemic continues to present, our classrooms remain a critical place for learning and growth, especially for Kindergarten and Elementary school students. Our challenge currently is finding the balance of what is best for our children’s scholastic, mental, social, and physical health. Our ultimate goal is getting our children back to school., For many, it is their best chance for learning and having access to all the other services that are critical for them.
Per CDPH guidance, schools cannot open for in-person education until our 14-day case rate has dropped below 100 per 100,000 and stays there for 14 days. Current state guidance allows local public health to begin considering elementary school opening through a waiver process when the 14-day case rate is below 200 per 100,000. This is based on data showing that elementary school children are less likely to become infected, less likely to become extremely sick, and less likely to spread this infection.
COVID-19 moves amazingly fast. Two months ago, we started seeing an increase in our cases. One month ago, our cases peaked. One month from now, we hope to be seeing even lower case rates. Based on current trend, we may drop below 200 cases per 100,000 in the next week. Now is the time to plan for elementary schools to begin the process of re-opening.
Elementary schools may apply for waivers to be able to open for in-person learning earlier than other grades by meeting several criteria, including detailed plans for physical distancing, how they will handle outbreaks if and when they occur, and when they would close, if necessary, in case of an outbreak. The process of review and approval of waivers may take one to two weeks. Elementary schools must submit their waiver application at least 14 days prior to the intended opening date.
Now is the time to bring together parents, educators, administrators, and school boards to assess their schools. We have many schools and school districts with widely varied student body sizes and facilities. There will be unique circumstances regarding the needs of the staff, students, their families, and their home situations. Schools need to consider all of these factors and make the best decisions for their schools, whether this means continued distance learning, moving toward in-person learning, or a mix of both.
Once our case rates are down, there will be many options for our schools to choose from in support of learning for their students. Public Health will continue to collaborate with school leadership as they work to ensure that students are provided meaningful and equitable opportunities to learn and succeed in all learning models. Ultimately, how any school or school district operates is up to them to follow state guidelines and work through with their stakeholders.
This pandemic came on suddenly and we have learned so much about this virus and how it is spread, with knowledge growing every day. This has led to so many changes in recommendations for how best to protect ourselves and our families. Many may be feeling confused and overwhelmed by all the information they have received this summer and by yet another change. And everyone needs to be prepared to change again. Activities that are low risk now may be high risk and to be avoided in two months.
We continue to encourage parents to look at their household members, their health, their risk for severe disease from this virus, and then make the best decision for their children regarding all activities including in-person education.