Less than week out from the planned reopening of Egan Junior High School and Blach Intermediate School in Los Altos, seventh and eighth graders can no longer resume in-person instruction under new state guidance released Thursday.
Superintendent Jeff Baier notified families of the change "with great disappointment" on Thursday night, 12 hours after writing to them with the district's plan to offer hybrid instruction to seventh and eight grade students starting next week. Sixth grade students can still return to classrooms starting Jan. 21.
Gov. Gavin Newsom's new reopening framework explicitly prohibits schools that have not yet been formally open — defined as a school that has been operational for at least one full grade level, including for hybrid learning — from reopening for in-person learning. Under previous guidance, because students in special day classes and targeted support cohorts have been learning in-person at the two middle schools, the district was allowed to bring more students back.
The new guidelines mean Egan and Blach seventh and eighth graders will continue learning at home until Santa Clara County has been in the state's red tier for two consecutive weeks.
"To be clear, the state's new reopening plan constitutes a substantial change in the guidance LASD received from Santa Clara County regarding reopening our junior high schools as recently as last week," Baier wrote to families. "Please know, we are poised and ready to reopen our junior high schools as soon as we receive the green light from state and local officials."
The sudden change in the reopening plan came on the heels of the Los Altos teachers union calling on the district to remain in full distance learning, citing worsening public health conditions in Santa Clara County and heightened stress among district educators.
The district remains committed to offering in-person instruction for students and families who want it, however, Baier wrote in his message. He's asked the county for "assistance in determining any avenues to implement our reopening plan for junior high students."
Newsom's announcement Thursday came with numerous new restrictions and requirements designed to support safe and transparent school reopenings across the state.
Schools will be required to report the status, scale and model of reopening every other week to the State Safe Schools Team, a group of health and educational experts tasked with overseeing implementation of in-person instruction. And "to ensure public transparency," California plans to launch an interactive map detailing reopening status and COVID-19 transmission rates reported by schools. School staff and parents can also send in safety concerns about specific schools online or via telephone to the State Safe Schools Team, which will monitor reports and "when appropriate" intervene with technical assistance or enforcement.
The state is also now requiring that all students on reopened campuses wear masks, regardless of age, and recommends disposable surgical masks for staff interacting frequently with others.
Newsom's announcement cites the "best available science" that demonstrates "in-person instruction can be implemented safely, especially for elementary schools," including that children with COVID-19 most often get it from an adult they live with rather than at school and that transmission among or from students is uncommon.
"Core mitigation strategies are necessary for safe and successful schooling. If those mitigation strategies are implemented as several layers of safety, elementary schools can be safe workplaces for teachers and other staff and safe learning environments for children," the California Department of Public Health said.
While the state is streamlining the process for kindergarten through sixth grade students to return to school, with studies showing a low risk of transmission at elementary schools, reopening high schools remains more complicated. A modified high school curriculum that creates stable groups, however, can "substantially mitigate the risk of widespread in-school transmission in high schools," the California Department of Public Health said. The new guidance offers approaches for minimizing crossover of staff across stable groups of middle and high school students.
More information is available on the state's new online reopening hub.