Kids, safety and schools: A pandemic debate plays out in California county

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – In Sutter County in California’s bucolic Sacramento Valley, coronavirus cases are rising, but Mike Ziegenmeyer wants his kids back in the classroom.

Unlike big-city school districts that plan to offer only remote learning this fall as COVID-19 rages through the state, several school districts in this agricultural region – once part of the 19th century gold rush – intend to accommodate that wish.

“I want my kids in school,” said Ziegenmeyer, a county supervisor and political conservative. “I think they need the social interaction.”

Ziegenmeyer, at least for now, will get his wish. The tiny Brittan School District where his three children attend class plans to bring students back to the classroom.

But opposition by some other parents in the county shows how Sutter County is a microcosm of a debate raging across California and the United States of whether it is safe to reopen schools amid a resurgent wave of coronavirus cases.

Cases started rising sharply in Sutter, as elsewhere in California, at the beginning of June and have continued to climb, increasing from about 75 cases to nearly 700. At least 17 people from Sutter, with a population of 97,000 and just a few hospital beds, were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of July 16, and 378 are currently ill, county data show.

Like so many of the controversies related to the pandemic, the school issue has become increasingly politicized. Republican President Donald Trump has been urging a return to regular school schedules, while many Democrats advocate a more cautious approach, such as continuing with the virtual lessons widely introduced when the spreading pandemic forced a sudden shutdown of schools in the spring.

Ziegenmeyer resents what he says is a heavy-handed approach by Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, who early this week put the brakes on the reopening of California’s economy as he reversed orders that had allowed many businesses to open their doors again. On Friday Newsom will release new guidelines on reopening schools.

Ziegenmeyer is also concerned parents will suffer economic harm if they can’t work because children are home from school.

HYBRID MODEL

In California, many large urban districts, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento, have said they will begin the academic year with remote instruction. But plans vary from county to county, and from one school district to another.

The board of the Yuba City Unified School District, Sutter’s county seat and its largest municipality with 67,000 residents, voted last week to reopen with traditional instruction, five days per week.

The move, which was against the superintendent’s recommendation, stunned parents and teachers expecting either remote learning or a hybrid model, under which children attend small classes for part of the week, with strict social distancing. The teachers union began tense negotiations on Thursday over the plan.

“It is my hope that they will change their minds,” said Dina Luetgens, president of the Yuba City Teachers Association, which wants a hybrid model under which only half the district’s students would be on campus at a time.

In-person instruction, even under such a model, would require careful planning and protective gear for teachers as well as students, she said. Without that, teachers and children would be safer studying remotely from home, she said.

The school district did not respond to requests for comment. But Superintendent Doreen Osumi told the local Appeal-Democrat newspaper the district would have to implement social distancing guidelines and require children to wear face coverings. Parents who do not wish to send their children back to school will be allowed to choose a remote learning plan, although it was not immediately clear how it would be organized.

Sutter County is no stranger to not following the crowd. In May, Sutter, neighboring Yuba and Modoc counties defied state restrictions aimed at controlling the coronavirus spread and allowed restaurants, retail stores and fitness centers to reopen even though it was prohibited by state guidelines.

The guidelines Newsom is expected to release on Friday could upend plans to reopen school campuses. But even if reopening continues, Leslie Gundy says she will not send her two children back to school in Yuba City.

“We are in no way prepared to do that,” said Gundy, whose husband is a teacher in the district. “There’s been too little communication about their plan and how they are going to keep my children safe – and our teachers safe.”

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler)

California shuts down businesses, schools as coronavirus outbreak grows

By Sharon Bernstein and Dan Whitcomb

SACRAMENTO (Reuters) – California’s governor on Monday clamped new restrictions on businesses as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations soared, and the state’s two largest school districts, in Los Angeles and San Diego, said children would be made to stay home in August.

Governor Gavin Newsom ordered bars closed and restaurants, movie theaters, zoos and museums across the nation’s most populous state to cease indoor operations. Gyms, churches and hair salons must close in the 30 hardest-hit counties.

“It’s incumbent upon all of us to recognize soberly that COVID-19 is not going away any time soon, until there is a vaccine and/or an effective therapy,” Newsom said at a news briefing.

The governor called the move critical to stemming a surge in COVID-19 cases that have strained hospitals in several of California’s rural counties.

The public school districts for Los Angeles and San Diego, which instruct a combined 706,000 students and employ 88,000 people, said in a joint statement they would teach only online when school resumes in August, citing “vague and contradictory” science and government guidelines.

The districts said countries that have safely reopened schools have done so only after establishing declining infection rates and on-demand coronavirus testing.

“California has neither,” the statement said, adding, “The sky-rocketing infection rates of the past few weeks make it clear the pandemic is not under control.”

The union representing Los Angeles teachers applauded the strategy in a separate statement released shortly after the school shutdowns were announced.

“In the face of the alarming spike in COVID cases, the lack of necessary funding from the government to open schools safely and the outsized threat of death faced by working-class communities of color, there really is no other choice that doesn’t put thousands of lives at risk,” United Teachers Los Angeles said.

Brenda Del Hierro, who has two children in Los Angeles schools, said resuming traditional instruction was important but the hazards had to be considered. “For their social and emotional well being they need to go back to school. But at the end of the day there is too much of a risk,” she said.

DISTRICTS CLASH WITH TRUMP

The decision to cancel in-person classes puts the districts at odds with U.S. President Donald Trump, who has said he might withhold federal funding or remove tax-exempt status from school systems that refuse to reopen. Most education funding comes from state and local governments.

Administration officials have said data does not suggest attending school would be dangerous for children because their infection rates are far lower than the population at large.

In response to the California districts’ announcement, the White House reiterated that the ideal scenario is for students to go to school. “Hopefully Los Angeles and San Diego can get there soon as well, as that is what is best for children.” spokesman Judd Deer said.

Newsom, who has said during the pandemic that it was up to local school districts to determine how best to educate their students, cheered the announcements by Los Angeles and San Diego.

But Republicans criticized the governor for failing to issue statewide guidelines for schools during the health crisis.

“While he continues to blame Californians for his failure in leadership, his demands to close our small businesses and lack of direction on opening schools will further harm California’s school children and the small businesses that fuel our economy,” Jessica Millan Patterson, chairwoman of the California Republican Party, said in a written statement.

California, along with Florida, Arizona and Texas have emerged as the new U.S. epicenters of the pandemic. Infections have risen rapidly in about 40 of the 50 states over the last two weeks, according to a Reuters analysis.

Despite nearly 28,000 new COVID-19 cases in the last two days in Florida, Disney World in Orlando welcomed the public on Saturday for the first time since March with guests required to wear masks, undergo temperature checks and keep physically apart.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Steve Gorman in Eureka, California, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Lisa Lambert and Doina Chiacu in Washington, and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Writing by Lisa Shumaker and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Howard Goller, Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)