Photo credit: Allison Shelley for American Education: pictures of teachers and students in action

Second graders sit behind protective shields at socially distant desks.

Photo credit: Allison Shelley for American Education: pictures of teachers and students in action

Second graders sit behind protective shields at socially distant desks.

December 19 was updated to explain whether school staff should be tested for Covid-19 upon return to school after being quarantined for 14 days.

School districts say they now have one more reason to fret about the spring reopening of schools: new statewide temporary emergency regulations to protect workers from exposure to Covid-19.

School officials are complaining that the new rules, which went into effect on November 30th after it was passed by Cal / OSHA earlier this month, could create confusion and significantly increase costs for school districts. This applies in particular to Covid test costs, for which the districts and education offices of the district are responsible.

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And they see the Cal / OSHA stringent requirements for detailed reporting and documentation imposing another burden in an already taxable year.

“The boredom and timing couldn’t be worse,” said Blanca Cavazos, superintendent of the Taft Union High School District, a two-school, 1,000-student district near Bakersfield, who put students back to school with a great effort for weeks before the regulations come into force. “We are now exhausted as we try to implement all existing safety protocols and procedures to keep schools open. We’re just trying to make it into the winter break. “

The state’s Department of Labor Relations, which oversees the Department of Health and Safety at Work, the official name for Cal / OSHA, scheduled a meeting with company officials this week to hear their suggestions. School districts and organizations they represent hope that they will consider the changes proposed by school districts before adopting the final regulations next year.

Meanwhile, the 180-day temporary emergency rules were passed after just five days of public scrutiny, despite state officials saying it would take time for employers to implement them. The rules apply to all employers – large manufacturing facilities, warehouses, office buildings, and small businesses – including schools that were already open for personal instruction.

“If the rules hadn’t been worked through so quickly, this confusion could have been avoided. What harm did it do to release them a few weeks later? Said Laura Preston, a legislative attorney for the Association of California School Administrators.

The regulations set out what employers must do to ensure workers wear face-covering and enforce physical distancing to prevent exposure. They must also have effective policies and procedures in place to correct unsafe conditions and identify employees who are exposed to Covid-19 health risks.

School districts such as Taft Union, which have reopened in whole or in part to small groups of students or following a hybrid model, have addressed many of the new requirements. Have you already made arrangements, such as installing plumbing stations, partitions between desks, and new HVAC filters, or have plans to do these and other measures. However, you have used the guidelines of the California Department of Health or based on variations of these guidelines by the county health authorities to reflect local conditions and geographic location. Some have linguistically encouraging districts to take action “as practicable”. Because the mandatory Cal / OSHA regulations are in effect and have potential fines and penalties behind them, they exceed voluntary state and regional guidelines.

“The uniqueness of school districts is not addressed in the regulations, nor is there any reference to the guidelines,” said Preston. “The California Department of Health guidelines recognized the differences within school districts across the state, while the Cal / OSHA regulations were one size fits all.”

As a result, those districts that have reached an agreement with workers’ unions on the requirements for reopening schools that did not cover all mandates in the new regulations may have to resume negotiations and change their agreements. The length of negotiations and additional requirements could affect the districts ability to bring students back in the spring.

Ben Valdepeña, president of the California School Employees Association, which represents non-teaching school staff such as bus drivers, supervisors and kitchen workers, said he was in favor of the regulations with no changes required. “We have asked the Cal / OSHA Standards Board to issue new health and safety regulations that address the challenges of work during this pandemic. We welcome these changes to protect workers by allowing Cal / OSHA inspectors to cite employers who are disregarding the safety of their workers, ”he said.

Schools are confused by conflicting requirements

Legislature ordered Cal / OSHA to write the Covid regulations. Although they apply to school districts, they weren’t written for them while the public health guidelines recognize the differences, Preston said.

The differences lead to language conflicts. For example, according to Cal / OSHA regulations, a construction site must be closed for 14 days if three or more employees are infected with the virus. According to state health guidelines, a classroom of students who act as a cohort would have to be closed for 14 days if an individual student or teacher tests positive for the virus. An entire school would use distance learning if multiple cohorts are involved or if 5% of students and staff test positive within 14 days.

School governing groups will encourage the Department of Labor Relations to include public health guidelines that apply to school closings and return to schools after quarantine, Preston said.

Public health guidelines allow schools to reopen 14 days after an outbreak without personal testing. Cal / OSHA requires that all potentially exposed employees be retested immediately and then once a week until no new cases are detected in the workplace. This requirement contradicts the recommendations of the federal centers for disease control and prevention, according to a November 2020 report by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Duke Margolis Center for Health Policy. “CDC does not recommend that people be retested before leaving isolation because people who have recovered can test positive for several weeks without being contagious,” the report said.

Although school staff testing costs should be covered by insurance, counties expect the costs to be passed on to counties through higher premiums. The Cal / OSHA testing requirement wouldn’t apply to high school students, but the California Teachers Association has required student testing for Covid and could require districts to offer families the opportunity to test for free in order to reopen schools after an outbreak.

“The unfunded mandates in the regulations concern,” Preston said. “We’re learning that many insurance companies will increase rates because of the amount of testing we need to do.”

Another problematic regulation stipulates that all employees who may have been exposed to Covid-19 in the school must be tested during the working day. This will create a problem for the many districts that do not sign local contracts and have trouble finding replacement teachers.

Cavazos said Taft Union has drawn up a return to school plan with a checklist of safety measures that are in line with the county’s recommendations. In the 21-page submission from Cal / OSHA, districts must describe in detail the actions they have taken. This includes the identification of heavily frequented “danger areas” and which employees work there. All of these records would be onerous, if not overwhelming, for tiny HR departments like hers, Cavazos said.

They could also be a blueprint for attorneys looking for evidence to use to sue counties for non-compliance, Cavazos said. School districts have so far unsuccessfully sought federal or state limited liability laws that would place plaintiffs on the burden of proving that they caught the virus at school and that schools are negligent in their approach to safety.

“State officials have said they will prioritize returning to school this spring, but regulations like Cal / OSHA could make it difficult to reopen,” said Preston.

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