Rules unveiled by Newsom place limits on whether schools can reopen

With coronavirus cases on the rise, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Friday that schools can only open in person if their county has been off the state's COVID-19 watch list for two weeks. Schools that don't meet those criteria must begin with distance learning. 

In districts where schools are allowed to reopen instruction inside of traditional classrooms, all staff and students in the third grade or above must wear masks. 

"Today's announcement is very personal to me as a father of four," Newsom said, noting that the Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly, a pediatrician, also has four children. As parents, both said they want their children to be educated and as parents, they want to be able to go back to work.

However, while Newsom said that he is mandating that schools provide "meaningful instruction" whether they are offering classes online or in-person, real-life instruction can only be done if it is done safely. His order applies to all schools, public, charter and private. And he said the state earmarked an additional $5.3 billion to enhance learning during the coronavirus pandemic. 

"And safety is determined by health data," he said.


This announcement affects schools where leaders had explored the idea of allowing students to come in person, at least for a few hours or a few days a week. Every county in the Bay Area except for San Mateo County on Friday was on the watch list. 

Schools in San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland, had already decided to open virtually, anyway. 

Other rules and guidelines in the plan include:

  • All school staff and students in 3rd grade and above must wear masks. Anyone younger is encouraged to wear them. Students will not be sent home if they do not have a mask or forget one. Schools will give masks to students. The state has already delivered 18 million masks to public and private schools. California is the first state in the country to prohibit students who don’t comply wearing masks from coming to school in person, according to the Newsom administration.
  • A district goes home if 25% of their schools are closed within 2 weeks.
  • A school goes home when multiple cohorts have cases or more than 5% of the school is positive.
  • Physical distancing: Staff must keep six feet distance between each other and the students. 
  • School days should begin with temperature checks.
  • Students must have access to devices and connectivity. But Newsom did not explain how the digital divide would be addressed, though he did say his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, has been working with philanthropists to get many of this equipment donated. 
  • English learners must receive special assignments that cater to them.    

As of Friday, 32 of the 58 counties were on the state's monitoring list and the positivity rate over 2 weeks was 7.4%. 

Not everyone was thrilled with the Democratic governor's announcement.

Republican Assemblyman Kevin Kiley accused the governor of listening to “special interests, not science” in laying out the rules.

“Rather than adopting a balanced approach that provides California families options for classroom-based and home-based learning, the governor is shutting down the vast majority of schools across the state,” Kiley said.

EdSource, which first reported the guidelines, noted that these rules represent a marked shift from leaving decisions over closing and reopening schools largely in the hands of local school district officials.  The California Department of Public Health will now play a stronger role in setting the criteria for reopening school facilities, EdSource reported.

At the same time, getting off the state’s county monitoring list would not mean that a district would automatically get to hold class in person. That decision would still be left up to local officials, typically in consultation with their teachers’ unions, EdSource reported.

Newsom offered some optimism, saying he hoped some of the counties could drop off the watchlist and at least some schools are "up and running in person." 

This story was reported from Oakland, Calif. The Associated Press contributed to this report.