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California classrooms closed for fall as virus cases surge

Rural counties in the central and northern parts of the state have seen little of the virus and can bring students and teachers back to campus.
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Most of California's 6.7 million schoolkids will be learning from home when the new school year begins in a few weeks as the state struggles with soaring rates of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday issued strict guidelines for 32 counties that are on a state watch list because of COVID-19 outbreaks. They effectively require distance learning in public and private K-12 schools until those counties see 14 days of declines in virus cases.

Rural counties in the central and northern parts of the state have seen little of the virus and can bring students and teachers back to campus but those in grades three through 12 must wear masks.

Several large school districts have already said their schools will begin the new term virtually, including Los Angeles and San Diego, the state's two largest with a combined enrollment of 720,000 K-12 students. San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, Long Beach, Santa Ana and San Bernardino are among the other districts opting not to immediately return to classrooms.

Laurel Brode, the mother of a 7-year-old son who is about to enter second grade, said she had hoped to send him back to school at least part-time this fall. He was unable to navigate distance learning himself in the spring, meaning the family would leave most school work to weekends or evenings when Brode or her husband could help.

"That's just a huge sacrifice," she said. "We just had to focus on what school work was essential."

Brode said she thinks school could implement measures for safe in-person learning but is glad the state has at least made it clear how the fall will begin.

"It gives a little bit more comfort in that we definitely know what's going to happen," she said.

Newsom's announcement came as California reported its third-highest daily total of additional coronavirus cases, with nearly 10,000 cases and 130 deaths. Although daily case numbers have fluctuated, in general COVID-19 infection rates have been rising sharply around the state in recent weeks.

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There was a potentially hopeful sign: The seven-day rate of positive cases was down slightly, to 7.1%, compared with the 14-day average. California tested more than 120,000 people per day during most of the past week.

"It's encouraging," said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency.

In March, state health orders shut down all but essential businesses such as grocery stores. People were urged to stay at home as much as possible. The move was cited for reductions in COVID-19 caseloads but it also gut-punched the state's economy.

Throughout May and June, California reopened much of its shuttered economy, with people again shopping in stores and dining out. California's unemployment rate fell in June as the state added a record 558,000 jobs. 

But virus caseloads also began to surge. On Monday, Newsom ordered a statewide closure of indoor businesses such as bars and restaurant dining rooms. Gyms, hair and nail salons and other businesses also were ordered closed in counties on the state watch list.

San Francisco, one of the nation's first cities to fully shut down and one of the slowest to reopen, joined the list on Friday, and the mayor expressed frustration that people are attending social gatherings against health officials' advice. 

Mayor London Breed said a city disaster services worker had to quarantine after the worker's roommate went on a camping trip with more than a dozen friends, came back sick and eventually tested positive for the virus. She also attributed the rise in cases to people returning to work. She also warned that failure to heed social distancing and mask-wearing protocols at work and in social gatherings could further spread the virus and delay the reopening of businesses.

"What I'm afraid of is the complacency. People are tired of the virus, but the virus is not tired of us," Breed said.

Public health director Dr. Grant Colfax said the average age of people hospitalized with COVID-19 at San Francisco General Hospital is 41. He's alarmed it took more than a month for the number of reported cases to climb from 2,000 to 3,000 — but it has taken 13 days for the count to go from 4,000 to nearly 5,000. 

Indoor malls will close Monday, and Colfax warned authorities are prepared to backtrack even more.

Los Angeles County, which has a quarter of the state's population of 40 million, reported nearly 2,300 additional cases and 62 new deaths and the rate of hospitalization rose even among younger people. Those between 18 and 40 years old were being hospitalized "at a higher rate than seen at any point in this pandemic," a county Department of Public Health statement said.

"This week, Los Angeles County has unfortunately reached grim milestones every day" in COVID-19 caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths, said Barbara Ferrer, the county's public health director.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the city is approaching a point where it might need to lock down even more businesses, although he said that wasn't happening immediately. 

Garcetti said he wants to wait one or two weeks to see whether Newsom's closure orders helped reduce the COVID-19 footprint.


Jocelyn Gecker and Janie Har in San Francisco and Cuneyt Dil in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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