OUSD Navigates Changing Requirements for School Campus Openings

(Sally Hogarty, Photographer)
This classroom at Wagner Ranch Elementary School is ready to go. All that is missing are the students.

    Continual changes and unclear policies from the State of California and Contra Costa County have led to frustration and anger for the Orinda Union School District’s (OUSD) board, staff, teachers, parents and students as they try to find a way back to in-person education.
    Parents and students want in-person learning to begin as soon as possible, while many educators prefer to return after being vaccinated.
    OUSD had hoped to open its schools Nov. 30 with a hybrid learning model for grades TK-2, gradually bringing in other grades. On Nov. 16, however, Contra Costa County’s increased COVID-19 cases moved the County to the Purple Tier, making District reopening impossible. Only schools already open were allowed to continue in-person instruction.
    The District applied for a waiver, setting Jan. 19 as the day in-person learning would begin. Governor Newsom’s “California’s Safe Schools for All Plan,” however, announced Dec. 30, eliminated waivers.
    The District again pivoted and asked the county if the special education classes at Wagner Ranch and OIS designated them as “open,” thus permitting those schools to allow additional students to attend hybrid model classes. Although initial responses from the County were unclear, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) issued new reopening regulations on Jan. 14, clearly stating school sites offering such specialized instruction were not considered “open.” The document was updated Jan. 19. Additional updates are still expected.
    “Time and time again, we’ve put in hours of work on something just to find out the sands had shifted, and it was no longer available,” said a clearly frustrated Superintendent of Schools Dr. Carolyn Seaton, who hopes to expand specialized small group instruction to get more students back on campus.
    According to the latest information from CDPH, TK-6th grade schools may now open in the Purple Tier, but only when Contra Costa County reaches a COVID-19 case rate below 25 per 100,000 population for five consecutive days. Schools can only reopen grades 7-8 when the county has been in the Red Tier for five consecutive days. As of Jan. 12, Contra Costa County’s COVID-19 case rate was 46.1 per 100,000.
    The Board expressed frustration with the state and county mandates, noting public schools in other counties were open despite much higher COVID rates than Contra Costa County.
    At the Jan. 21 meeting, School Board Members Jason Kaune and Carol Brown proposed a plan to open schools Feb. 8, using a new interpretation of the CDPH definition of what constitutes an already open school. Three of the five board members, however, felt the proposal would not be allowed by the CDPH and would harm relationships with teachers and their union.
    “We all want our kids back in school but I’m not comfortable with this proposal which tries to circumvent the rules,” said OUSD President Liz Daoust.
    While the proposal failed, the Board decided to write a protest letter to the CDPH stressing how prepared the District is to begin safe in-person learning now.
    Newsom’s Safe Schools for All plan includes approximately $450 per student to districts offering in-person instruction beginning in February. It also requires weekly testing, personal protective equipment (PPE), contact tracing and vaccinations. The funds have yet to be approved by the state legislature.
    “We’ve been working around the clock to get schools open,” said OUSD Board Member Hillary Weiner. She added that under the governor’s plan, schools ready to open in February, but prohibited from doing so due to their county’s COVID-19 numbers, would still be eligible to open at a later date.
    “The document from the CDPH is completely inadequate, but we need to figure out the best path for our teachers and students,” said Daoust. “The kids are the ones impacted here. They need to be back in school.”

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