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So Far, Local School Districts Punt on In-Class Instruction Waivers

Despite the recent availability of a waiver from the state that potentially allows for the in-person instruction of elementary-school students, no local school district has elected to apply for the waiver as of Oct. 6.

Several large local public school districts have indicated that the current rate of positive COVID-19 cases in the county precludes the resumption of classroom instruction at their respective campuses.

As of Oct. 8, the county’s positivity rate stood at 9.4 percent, a figure that several district superintendents said ruled out their respective consideration of applying for the waiver.

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“We will continue to monitor the county case numbers and provide educational services via distance learning until it is deemed safe for the school sites to reopen,” Bryan Thomason, Imperial Unified School District superintendent, said in an email.

The waiver applies to transitional kindergarten through sixth grade and excludes junior high and high schools.

The county on Oct. 1 announced that it would start accepting waiver applications on Oct. 5. The waivers allow for classroom instruction on the condition that campuses have adopted the appropriate safety measures and met other conditions.

“The improving COVID-19 situation in Imperial County now makes it practical to consider school waivers provided that the appropriate protective measures are in place,” stated Dr. Stephen Munday, county Public Health officer, in the Oct. 1 statement. “I look forward to children being able to return to their classrooms in the safest manner possible.” 

During the Oct. 6 county Board of Supervisors meeting, the county health officer disclosed that the county Public Health Department had not received any waiver applications. The department declined to provide an update regarding the status of applications on Oct. 8.

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As part of the application process, the county health officer would review local health conditions and consult with the state Department of Public Health when considering a district’s waiver request.

Currently, the county is classified according to the state’s reopening system as a Tier 1 locale, where COVID-19 is considered “widespread,” and where schools and some non-essential businesses remain closed.

The current positivity rate is considerably lower than the 23 percent rate the county experienced in late June, when Gov. Gavin Newsom recommended the county reinstate its stay-at-home order. The positivity rate corresponds with the number of residents per 100,000 who test positive over a two-week period.

The county’s current Tier 1 designation and the slight uptick of its positivity rate in recent days is sufficient reason for the Brawley Elementary School District to not consider a waiver at the present moment, Superintendent Richard Rundhaug said.

Even in counties where waivers are not required, school districts continue distance learning to help prevent the further spread of COVID-19, Rundhaug stated in an email.

“For those reasons, we do not seek to obtain an exception to the standards that keep our students healthy and safe,” he said.

Similar sentiments were expressed by the superintendents of the Calexico Unified and El Centro Elementary school districts.

“With the increasing positivity rate and new case rate rising, we do not feel it is a prudent time to open our school sites,” El Centro Elementary Superintendent Jon LeDoux stated.

“We will continue to provide educational services via distance learning until it is deemed safe for the school sites to reopen,” Calexico Unified Superintendent Carlos Gonzales said in a statement addressing the matter of waivers and posted on the district’s website.  

When the time comes to resume campus instruction, some of the districts indicated that certain and limited populations of students would likely be given prioritization to return to campuses.

For El Centro Elementary, its reopening plan would limit onsite attendance to no more than 50 percent of its students on any given day, LeDoux said in an email.

Students at Finely Elementary School in Holtville listen intently to a U.S. Border Patrol anti-bullying presentation in 2018. It’s been seven months since students in Imperial County have been inside a classroom due to the pandemic. While the county health department began accepting school waivers to return to in-class instruction Oct. 5, as of Oct. 8, 2020, no local schools have applied for a such a waiver. | FILE PHOTO

And while the district currently does not have any in-person instruction, it is considering the possibility of having a small cohort of students (no more than 14) who need specialized services come onto campus for a few hours per week to receive services.

“This is still in the planning stage and if it did occur, both staff and parents of the students involved would be in agreement that it is appropriate and safe to do so,” LeDoux said.

When onsite instruction is eventually permitted, Brawley Elementary has plans to bring back students in incremental numbers, Rundhaug said.

The district has also identified small groups of students that fit the state Department of Public Health’s definition of a cohort (no more than 14 students and two supervisors), which would allow for their onsite instruction, possibly within the next few weeks.

“We are prioritizing those cohorts and developing plans to provide in-person instruction while keeping those students and our staff healthy and safe,” Rundhaug said.

Meanwhile, Dr. George Fareed, a physician and medical director at the Pioneers Health Center in Brawley, said he will be presenting to the Brawley Elementary school board at 6 p.m. Oct. 13 about COVID-19.

The Imperial Unified School District is also in the planning stages to have in-person intervention next month for some targeted cohorts, including special education classes.

The cohort model is based on guidance the state Department of Public Health issued in September.

The department’s guidance applies to groups of children and youth in controlled, supervised, and indoor environments operated by local educational agencies, nonprofits, or other authorized providers.

Such providers also include licensed and license-exempt childcare settings, organized and supervised care environments, recreation and before and after school programs, as well as youth groups and day camps.