Photo credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times / Polaris

Jordan Ribon, 9, left, arrives at James H. Cox Elementary School in Fountain Valley with her father Tom Rincan and 4-year-old brother Dylan Rincan.

Photo credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times / Polaris

Jordan Ribon, 9, left, arrives at James H. Cox Elementary School in Fountain Valley with her father Tom Rincan and 4-year-old brother Dylan Rincan.

Seven urban school districts in California, including the state’s four largest, have urged Governor Gavin Newsom to enact and pay tougher, more uniform health and safety requirements before getting students back to school during the pandemic.

“Collective action and additional funding will be needed to get students, teachers and staff back to schools in a way that is as safe as possible and sustainable over the long term,” they said in a November 2 letter hosted by Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner and signed by Superintendent of the San Diego, Long Beach, Fresno, Santa Ana, Sacramento, and Oakland School Districts. Adopting their recommendations would mean a shift from local control to tighter state control over the reopening of schools.

None of the districts plan to return students to regular classes before January. Of the seven, Los Angeles and Long Beach are in Los Angeles County, labeled “purple,” the most restricted category on the state’s watch list. This indicates high infection rates and prohibits schools from reopening until data improves. The other counties are in counties that allow schools to reopen, although infection rates in some neighborhoods in Santa Ana, Oakland, and Fresno are higher than the county’s averages.

Their request for a “common standard” of stricter requirements would potentially make it more difficult to bring the students back. The letter comes when other districts, including Capistrano Unified, the state’s eighth largest district, reopened or announced dates for resumption of in-person tuition, without meeting some of the tedious requirements the boroughs seek to impose by the state.

The most pressing need, said San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten, is advanced virus testing. Last summer’s government guidelines called for teachers and staff to be “monitored” to identify potential asymptomatic Covid-19 carriers every two months. “We felt it was important to state clearly that this may not be enough,” Marten wrote in an email. “The students should also be tested. And tests may need to be done more frequently. “

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A three-page document setting out the proposed uniform standards calls for free testing for students and staff, as well as family members who may have been exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. Tests should be available in multiple locations within a community, with a turnaround time of 24 to 48 hours for test results, the document says.

Last week, Newsom announced the opening of a $ 25 million state lab as part of a partnership with PerkinElmer, a diagnostics company that plans to run 150,000 tests by March. That, Newsom said, should help districts reopen schools, though he did not call for more comprehensive school tests.

Newsom has provided districts with $ 5.3 billion in funding under the CARES Act, as well as $ 620 million in government funds, which it repeatedly said should be enough to reopen schools. And he has insisted that individual school districts should decide when to reopen based on guidelines from the state and county health departments.

But Marten and the other superintendents argue that the CARES bill money is a one-time funding, most of which must be spent by December 31st, and the districts need sustained funding to keep schools open. “Nobody is seriously arguing that the CARES bill or any other payout has enough funds to cover a robust nationwide testing program,” she wrote.

Calls for a stronger role for Newsom in reopening schools, particularly in collecting and publishing data on school infections and more comprehensive testing protocols, have grown louder. Last week, at a Legislature hearing, Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, said Dr. Erica Pan, acting health officer for the California Department of Health, said uniform testing requirements would help school districts finalize negotiations with teacher unions reopening.

“If you don’t bring out test protocols for our state, our districts are in a very difficult position,” he said.

The superintendents are calling on the state to put in place a data collection system that will allow districts to publish a school “Covid Testimonial” identifying a cohort of students at a school infected with the virus. Districts are currently deciding how much information to share with parents and the community. The document also states that the state should monitor compliance with testing and contact tracing programs.

In a presentation at the hearing, the Legislative Analyst’s Office also urged the state to track and report Covid-19 cases and to help schools respond to outbreaks and track family members and anyone else who may be the Virus.

The LAO acknowledged that advanced testing could “generate significant costs” that districts had not anticipated.

In an October 15 letter to Newsom and state superintendent for public education Tony Thurmond, mayors of the state’s 13 largest cities expressed impatience at the pace of school openings and urged state officials to take a stronger hand.

“We recognize and acknowledge the serious health concerns of teachers, parents and staff, but we are also extremely concerned about the impact of extended distance learning and lack of access to personal teaching resources on our children,” the letter said.

Mayors noted, “We are seeing private and parish schools open much faster, which may increase the differences between well-equipped and underfunded schools.”

They urged Newsom to channel more testing resources into schools and to establish uniform standards for prioritizing reopening for students with special needs education, young students and students in the areas of highest poverty.

The California Teachers Association praised the letter from the seven superintendents in a statement Monday. “We have called for teachers / school employees and students to be tested and the necessary safety measures and protocols to be applied in all schools,” said CTA spokeswoman Claudia Briggs. “I’m glad to hear the superintendents agree with us. We are in tune. “

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