KATHLEEN RONAYNE and ADAM BEAM
SACRAMENTO (AP) — California schoolchildren could return to their classrooms as early as July though there likely will be modifications, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday.
No official decisions have been made, but Newsom acknowledged there have been “learning losses” as parents have sought to teach their kids from home since most schools and classrooms closed in mid-March to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
School districts and families have struggled to adapt to at-home learning and the deficits have been even greater in homes without technology or where parents are essential workers who are not at home to do home-schooling, Newsom has said.
“That learning loss is very real,” Newsom said. “If we can maybe start up the school year a little earlier, maybe we can help close that gap.”
But schools may look radically different than before, said Sonia Angell, the state’s public health director. Newsom previously said schools may launch with staggered start times to limit the number of students in the school at one time and make changes to recess, lunch and other normal school gatherings that draw large groups of students together.
Newsom’s comments came as he outlined plans for a gradual reopening of the state when as hospitalization rates due to coronavirus begin to stabilize. He also noted that some business sectors, such as retail and manufacturing, may be able to open within weeks, while other businesses such as hair salons will take longer. Large gatherings such as concerts still remain out of reach, he said.
Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order on March 19, which aimed to slow the spread of COVID-19 by keeping most people at home and closing all but essential businesses. Health officials have said the efforts have helped flatten the curve of the virus outbreak but they also have caused massive unemployment and economic upheaval.
On Monday, Newsom said the state is “a few weeks away, not months away” from making meaningful changes in the order — his most optimistic timeline yet.
Still, it was a dramatic shift from just three weeks ago, when Newsom and top health officials were projecting a need for at least 50,000 additional hospital beds for a mid-May surge in cases. That wave hasn’t materialized. Hospitals have ample bed space and for the last week the numbers of hospitalizations and intensive care unit patients has remained relatively steady.
Those are key statistics for Newsom as he gauges when and how to reopen the state.
Newsom said he would consider different needs based on the types of businesses and where they are located. He and other governors are working together on guidelines for restarting their economies. Colorado and Nevada on Monday joined the Western States Pact that also includes Washington and Oregon.
While polls show most people support keeping social distancing restrictions in place for as long as necessary, there have been small but vociferous public protests and also growing calls among businesses and local lawmakers for a cautious path to reopening.
Newsom and others have warned against reopening stores, dine-in restaurants and other businesses unless they have strict social distancing measures in order to prevent a new surge of the virus. Health experts say lifting restrictions should come only when there are enough testing programs, medical supplies and protections to ensure it is done safely.
But Newsom will have to juggle a state with a split personality. Some rural counties are ready to move ahead while large cities and counties are wary.
Last week, six rural counties northeast of San Francisco — Sutter, Yuba, Butte, Colusa, Tehama and Glenn —- and 14 of their small cities sent a letter asking the governor to allow them to implement “a careful and phased reopening of our local economies.”
The counties, with a population of about 500,000 people, have seen fewer than 100 confirmed COVID-19 cases and only a handful of deaths.
The letter also was signed by the region’s two Republican state lawmakers, Assemblyman James Gallagher and Sen. Jim Nielsen.
The governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to the letter. But Gallagher, of Yuba City, said he believes Newsom is open to a regional approach to easing restrictions.
Meantime, six San Francisco Bay Area counties on Monday extended their local stay-at-home orders through May. The announcement came from Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties along with the City of Berkeley, which has its own public health department.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and death.
KATHLEEN RONAYNE and ADAM BEAM