Assuming San Mateo County continues to join the state’s COVID-19 watchlist, most local students would not be able to return to the classroom until health conditions improve, said county Superintendent Nancy Magee.

High school and middle school classrooms would be shuttered until two weeks after the county is removed from the watchlist, while elementary schools could apply for a waiver to be exempted from the shutdown.

The clarity comes the day after officials announced San Mateo County started a three-day preliminary monitoring process to determine whether the county should be forced to shutter business and school operations.

Noting the county has been trending in this direction for some time, Magee said educators throughout the region are planning to begin the fall semester in remote learning arrangements.

“All schools must commence the new school year in a distance learning format,” said Magee.

Potential modifications to that arrangement are possible though, noted Magee, who said elementary school districts can apply to local and state health officials for a waiver to allow some students back to the classroom.

The waiver process is still under development and specific terms of the agreement are yet to be determined. But Magee expected officials seeking an exemption would be required to show a plan for adhering to health and safety protocol, while also developing a strategy for adequate virus testing and tracing.

“Schools can apply for a waiver, and if they meet those requirements, they would be able to resume in-person learning,” she said.

Magee said she is uncertain how long the waiver process might take, so it is unknowable when the first elementary school students might be allowed back on campus.

Should a local school system get its waiver approved, Magee noted campus operations would be modified from the regular form of instruction known before the pandemic.

Schools which receive a waiver should expect to start with a hybrid model, allowing multiple small groups of students which alternate between receiving classroom instruction and taking classes online, said Magee.

Similarly, once health conditions allow middle and high schools to bring students back to campus it will likely be those with the highest need invited back first, before the rest of a campus community, said Magee. She also noted campuses are not shuttered entirely, as many teachers will still be at school sites and students can visit to pick up meals or attend to other specific interests.

The mixed campus format was preferred among most local school officials who had been developing reopening plans for the fall, until health conditions started to deteriorate.

For planning purposes, Magee said most educators are focused on assuring the remote learning programs needed for the coming semester are rigorous and comprehensive.

Recognizing the frustrations many felt regarding the difficulties associated with online learning required in March when the emergency shelter-in-place order arrived, Magee said previous mistakes would not be repeated.

“The distance learning in the fall will be much more structured, much more accountable,” she said. “We will still be learning and getting better at it, but it will be a much better scenario than what March involved.”

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