SACRAMENTO — California Gov. Gavin Newsom laid out new rules Friday that will require schools in counties with high rates of coronavirus infections to keep campuses closed until they can meet certain public health standards, the broadest move yet in the U.S. to mandate virtual learning for the fall.
Schools located in counties that are on the state’s coronavirus watch list must not physically open for instruction until they have cleared several public health benchmarks for 14 consecutive days. As of Friday, 32 of California’s 58 counties were on the state’s watch list, including most of Southern California, the Central Valley, Sacramento region and Bay Area.
About 80 percent of California’s population lives in a watch list county. The order applies to all schools, including private and charter programs that might have been planning to run in-person classes.
“The virus will be with us for a year or more, and school districts must provide meaningful instruction in the midst of this pandemic,” Newsom said in a statement Friday. “In California, health data will determine when a school can be physically open — and when it must close — but learning should never stop. Students, staff, and parents all prefer in-classroom instruction, but only if it can be done safely.”
The move defies President Donald Trump’s efforts to reopen campuses for the fall and comes amid growing concerns expressed by teachers and families. It also overrides efforts in areas such as Orange County, where the board of education this week recommended that students return to classrooms without masks.
Large California districts had already made plans to start the school year with distance learning, starting with the state’s two largest in Los Angeles and San Diego. That touched off a cascade of other campus closure announcements, including all districts in Sacramento County. Trump later blasted the closure decision by Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second largest district, as a “terrible decision.”
For schools that do reopen, students in the third grade and above will be required to wear a face covering. An official in the Newsom administration told POLITICO Friday that California is the first state to take school mask enforcement further and will exclude students from schools if they refuse to wear a mask and force them to partake in distance learning instead.
Teachers in schools able to reopen will be routinely provided coronavirus testing by their districts.
The news comes as the California Teachers Association has ramped up demands to prolong distance learning as the state is slammed by a surge in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations. It marks a significant shift from Newsom’s deference to local control, though he is allowing county health officers to provide waivers to elementary schools if requested by a superintendent, labor unions and other community members.
California was an early model for the nation for controlling the spread of Covid-19. But the state has seen a surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths over the past month following a broad reopening effort that allowed everything from bars to movie theaters to operate. Newsom on Monday shut down some of the riskiest indoor sectors in new closure orders.