Photo credit: Amy Woropay

Westside Neighborhood School students returned to school in October.

Photo credit: Amy Woropay

Westside Neighborhood School students returned to school in October.

This was updated on January 12th to reflect changes in the purple, red, orange, and yellow layers.

Q: What is the color-coded county tracking system and how does it affect schools?

A: Governor Newsom released “Draft For Safer Economy” on Aug. 28, which changed the way the state monitors counties to determine when schools can be opened for personal instruction. However, the main impact will depend on when businesses can reopen.

The blueprint contains a four-tier, color-coded system that tracks the counties based on the number of Covid-19 cases recorded daily and the percentage of positive cases out of the total number of tests performed, both averaged over seven days. It came into effect on August 31st and replaced the previous “County Monitoring List”.

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On September 30, the California Department of Health released a new health equality metric that went into effect October 6 and affects a county’s ability to move between levels.

What do the colors stand for?

Purple or Tier 1 indicates the virus is widespread in the county – with more than seven cases per 100,000 population, or more than 8% of test results reported positive over seven days. Red (Tier 2) indicates “significant” spread of the virus, while Orange (Tier 3) indicates “moderate” spread and yellow (Tier 4) indicates “minimal” spread of the virus in the county.

If one of the two metrics is higher than the other, the state assigns the county to the color that has the highest rating. For example, if a county reports six cases per 100,000 but a positivity rate of 9%, it will be rated purple.

No purple-rated public or private schools in counties will be able to reopen for in-person tuition unless they receive a basic waiver for grades K-6 students who are under Executive Order of Gov. Newsom dated July 17 are allowed or follow the known guidelines for small groups of children called “cohorts”. See below for counties that change from red to purple.

Counties that change from purple to red can be opened for personal lessons in the red area after 14 days. However, some counties may have stricter rules prohibiting schools from opening.


Rising Covid-19 rates are halting plans to reopen schools in three California counties

Q: How will the Regional Stay Home orders affect schools?

Actually none. These orders were issued in response to the pandemic that spread across the state in November 2020. The orders primarily affect the business operations and the offering of a range of services. Schools that are currently open for in-person tuition can continue to offer it, regardless of whether their district is in an on-demand region. Other existing programs such as the K-6 class waiver program will remain in place.

Question: What is the current status of the California counties?

When the Tier system was first introduced in August, 38 of the state’s 58 counties were rated purple, meaning the virus was widespread and schools couldn’t offer face-to-face tuition to all students. Elementary schools in purple counties can apply for a waiver, but only if the daily infection rate in the county is between 7 and 14 per 100,000 inhabitants.

The number of counties classified as purple steadily declined to nine between that point and October 27, but rose to 13 counties by November 10 as the state saw a surge in Covid-19 cases. After a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases between November 10 and 16, Newsom pulled an “emergency brake” and downgraded another 28 districts to purple, bringing the total to 41. Another four were downgraded on November 24, six on November 30, bringing the total to 51 counties. As of December 7, 52 counties were in the purple level and by December 15, 55 counties were in the purple level.

Counties rated purple on January 12th : Alameda, Amador Butte, Contra Costa, Colusa, El Dorado, Del Norte, Fresno, Glenn, Humboldt, Inyo, Kern, Kings, Lassen, Mendocino, Marin, Merced, Napa, Nevada, Orange, Placer, San Benito, San Joaquin , San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Siskiyou, Solano, Sutter, Tuolumne, Ventura, Yolo, Yuba, Kaiser, Los Angeles, Madera, Monterey, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, Shasta, Sonoma , Stanislaus, Tehama, Tulare, San Francisco, Lake, Calaveras, Modoc, Mono, Plumas, and San Mateo counties.

These 54 districts, now in the purple tier, include 978 public school districts and 1,302 charters, with a total of 6,068,011 students enrolled – 99.93% of the state’s total enrollment.

Counties rated red as of January 12th: Trinity, Mariposa and Alpine. Districts must stay outside of the purple level for at least 14 consecutive days for schools to open for personal instruction.

Counties rated orange on January 12th: Sierra.

As of January 12, no districts were rated yellow

Schools in counties rated orange or yellow may be reopened for face-to-face tuition due to changes made July 17 by the state Guidance and then August 3rd Guidance.

Question: If a school opens while its county is rated red, the county will revert to purple. Does it have to close?

A. No. Schools that open while their county is rated red but then move back to purple may stay open but will need to increase staff Covid-19 tests. According to the reopening guidelines released on July 17, “Schools should begin staff testing or increase the frequency of staff testing, but don’t have to close” if cases or positivity rates rise nationwide.

The state recommends that all schools open to staff for face-to-face testing every two months, or 25% of staff every two weeks. A school in a county that returns to the purple grade should exceed this.

All schools must close if at least 5% of employees and students test positive for Covid-19 within 14 days. School districts must close when a quarter of schools in the districts are closed due to Covid-19 cases. The schools can usually be reopened within 14 days after the campus has been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. The tracking of the public health contacts has been completed and the district health department has given its approval.

Question: Can elementary schools in counties with a purple rating apply for a personal opening?


Young students sit six feet apart on soccer field.

Why Los Angeles County’s Most Needy School Districts Are Not Applying For Campus Reopening Exemptions

A. Yes. Dr. Mark Ghaly, the secretary of state for health and human services, said Aug. 28 that schools in counties with a daily case rate of 7-14 per 100,000 residents can request waivers for grade K-6 students. Schools and counties must consult with workers’ unions, parents, and the community before applying for the exemption, which must be approved by the county health department in consultation with the state health department.

Question: Why did the state change its surveillance system for the county in August?

A. The state decided to simplify its previous complex circle surveillance system by reducing the number of metrics calculated (from six to two metrics) and instead creating a four-tier system. Also, the counties’ status will change every seven days instead of daily. All of this is intended to create a more predictable and easier-to-understand way of determining when businesses and schools can reopen, Governor Newsom said when he rolled out the new system on Aug. 28.

The county’s previous watch list also included data on the total number of tests performed daily, the number of people hospitalized with Covid-19, the number of patients admitted to intensive care units due to Covid-19, and the number of respiratory protective devices available. But Ghaly said these were “lagging indicators” and the state wanted to focus on the earliest indicators that show what is currently happening in the communities. That’s why they chose case rates.

Focusing on the positivity rates of tests also allows the state to remind the public of the ways to avoid infection, such as washing their hands frequently, wearing masks, keeping 6 foot physical distances, and avoiding themselves to mix with people outside of households if possible.

However, both Ghaly and Newsom said the state can take an “emergency break” from reopenings if hospital stays and intensive care units overwhelm the county’s health systems. On Oct. 6, Ghaly said that when the schools reopened, he had seen no signs that the reopening had contributed to the spread of Covid-19 in communities.

EdSource data journalist Daniel J. Willis contributed to this report.

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