Confirmed coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County have declined since last month, a trend that has made local school district officials optimistic about being able to offer in-class instruction at the elementary school level relatively soon, but any hopes for reopening campuses in the near future were dashed Wednesday by county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.
“At this point, [the Department of] Public Health will not be opening up our waiver process for schools,” Ferrer said in a statement. “We will be closely reviewing the guidance from the state and will be reviewing all options with [county supervisors] to ensure that schools are able to open as safely as possible for all children and staff.
“We do need to continue taking all of the steps that we were taking these past few weeks so that our community transmission rates remain low enough for us to continue our recovery journey,” she added in the county’s update, “and a very important piece of that recovery journey is getting our children back to schools.”
The department on Tuesday reported a case rate of 196 per 100,000 residents in the most recent two-week span, and it appeared then that maintaining that mark would give health officers discretion to grant waivers to school districts to permit campuses to reopen for in-person attendance, in accordance with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s guidelines.
“All of the superintendents are on the phone in a weekly call with the Department of Public Health,” Burbank Unified School District Superintendent Matt Hill said Thursday. “They confirmed that they still have not released the waiver and are optimistic that if we all keep doing what we’re doing and rates continue to go down, we can start to reopen schools.”
Though Ferrer’s comments the previous day seemed to put such optimism on hold, L.A. County nevertheless reported fewer than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases for the first time since the beginning of June, with 989 confirmations, a marked contrast to the nearly 3,200 per day from mid- to late July.
Still, the county remains on the state’s coronavirus watch list as it failed to record fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 residents, one of six indicators set by the governor. Orange County was removed from the list on Sunday after meeting all safety thresholds and can have students in classrooms after Labor Day if the downward trend continues.
A news release from the public health department implied expectations should be tempered because “it is too early to tell if the county’s 14-day case rate will remain below 200, especially given [that] cases reported on Monday and Tuesday are typically lower than other days of the week.”
That forecast proved to be true as the number of new cases rose to 1,636 in the department’s report released on Thursday.
The city of Burbank has had 1,294 cases in all — a case rate of 1,207 per 100,000 residents — and 55 deaths
Reiterating a statement he made during the last BUSD Board of Education meeting, Hill said he does not want to rush into the next phase, in which students would return to campus at a limited capacity. The superintendent said he and staff members adhere to a reopening checklist sent by public health officials.
“We are making plans but we’re not a district that rushes into it,” Hill said. “We won’t react to just a few headlines. We go by the numbers, and we want to make sure it’s safe. I’m optimistic that people in the county and Burbank will continue to follow the guidelines and stay healthy. We have to be thoughtful.”
BUSD is taking a cautious approach in bringing back students to its school sites and wants to be transparent with its stakeholders regarding that process. It would also have to renegotiate working conditions with employees and teachers.
“We would like to develop a plan [based on multiple guidelines] and have a public discussion about it,” Hill said. “We have to give parents and staff plenty of time to prepare for any changes. There just isn’t a magic number and we’re back in.”
The next school board meeting will be held virtually on Thursday, Sept. 3, and the agenda includes activities reports from high school student representatives as well as updates from Hill regarding distance learning and the district’s equity, diversity and inclusion committee.