Diana Marrone felt alone and out of options.

The single mother of a 5-year-old kindergartener had struggled to balance her full-time job while guiding her daughter’s remote learning. Marrone’s mother would

ordinarily assist with childcare, but coronavirus exposure concerns ruled that out. Still, Marrone balked at the idea of sitting her daughter, Sienna, out for a year, worried she would fall behind academically and resent school.

So Marrone, who lives in the East Bay suburb of Oakley, pulled her daughter out of the public district school in Antioch she’d been attending remotely. At a monthly tuition of $579, Marrone enrolled Sienna at a private Christian school within the Antioch district’s boundaries that had begun bringing elementary students back on campus.

“I was very desperate,” Marrone said. She remembered thinking to herself, “What am I going to do? Am I going to quit my job and Zoom from my car and be homeless?”

The private school, Cornerstone Christian School, was able to reopen after the county and state approved their application for an elementary waiver. These waivers, which the state introduced in early August, allow public and private schools in restricted counties to offer in-person instruction to students in kindergarten through sixth grade if they prove they will take strict safety precautions and demonstrate they have support from teachers and families to reopen.

But nearly two months since the waivers’ debut, a disparate picture has emerged: California’s private schools make up an overwhelming share of approved applications.

More than 500 private schools have had waivers approved, according to a running list published by the California Department of Public Health, compared with roughly four dozen public school districts and charters comprising more than 120 campuses.

When student enrollment data factored, the private-public disparity appears starker. The private schools that have so far been granted waivers account for at least 25% of the state’s K-6 private-school enrollment, based on a CalMatters analysis. The public schools that have been granted waiver as of Tuesday account for about 1.6% of the state’s total K-6 public-school enrollment.

The boxes that need to be checked for a waiver approval are no different for public schools than for private schools, and overall, few submitted applications have been denied so far. But experts say that, despite interest from some school districts in applying for waivers, meeting the requirements present less challenges for private schools.

Whereas public school districts must demonstrate that they have community-wide buy-in to physically reopen campuses, private schools are often only required to engage “tiny subsets of those communities,” said Kevin Gordon, a veteran Capitol lobbyist who represents school districts.

Whereas most public schools must show they have support from teachers unions that wield heavy influence in crafting plans forreopening and remote learningthrough collective bargaining agreements, private schools that mostly operate without organized labor “don’t have to have that conversation,” Gordon said.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing because the unions are doing their job, and their job is to look out for the interest of the employees they represent,” Gordon said. “And in private schools, they (teachers) are not represented.”

Equity disparity

In 12 counties, including Contra Costa County where Marrone lives, private schools make up the entirety of approved waivers so far.

In the Central Valley county of Kings, for example, all five of its private schools have been granted elementary waivers while the 14 public school districts there remain educating students remotely. As of this week, all of the approved waivers in Ventura County have come from private schools, though some districts there have indicated they plan to apply for waivers.

“This program inadvertently is not producing a tremendous amount of equity,” Dr. Robert Levin, Ventura County’s public health officer, said of the elementary waivers.

Levin said the health benefits of bringing back students to socialize with their classmates and teachers under strict safety measures outweigh the fears and risks of reopening campuses. He said he remains concerned for students with special needs and English learners who’ve been served poorly by months-long campus closures, calling it “a shame” and “a crime” that public-school students who are disadvantaged “are not able to avail themselves of in-person education.”

“The bottom line is education is an important part of public health,” Levin said, “and if we’re educating kids in private schools and not educating kids in public schools, then what’s going to come of that is an education and class difference, ultimately.”

More than six months after its K-12 schools closed en masse, California could potentially experience its most sweeping campus reopenings to date within the next few weeksafter a summer wave of infections shut the door for the vast majority of schools to begin the new year in person.

Schools, most of them private and small or rural public districts, continue to apply for elementary waivers. Large, urban counties such as Orange, Alameda, Santa Clara and San Diego have moved up the state’s tiered list, meaning schools there can reopen without a waiver if they follow the state’s safety requirements and their counties stay out of the most restrictive “purple” tier for two weeks. In Orange County, where a large number of elementary waivers had been approved, several school districts plan to transition toward hybrid learning in the following weeks.

Still, many school districts remain hesitant to transition toward in-person instruction via hybrid learning, either because the majority of families and educators do not yet support reopening campuses or because they are not yet prepared to offer in-person learning. Some districts have already decided or indicated they will remain learning remotely for the rest of the calendar year as they grapple with issues like testing, contact tracing and the costs of implementing safety measures.

The federal assistance many school leaders have said is necessary to sustain in-person instruction in the long run has yet to materialize. The state implemented new safety requirements in July, including that employees be tested every two months and that students in grades 3-12 wear face coverings. But some critics say those requirements don’t go far enough, in part because they don’t require the youngest students to mask up.

“The waivers are putting in jeopardy the communities’ health,” said Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, which criticized the state for granting elementary waivers in counties where the state, itself, has deemed “widespread” transmission of the virus.

“If the number of COVID cases continue because we have certain categories of schools open and COVID spreads, it’s going to take it that much longer for the community to eventually open for real,” Freitas said.

Teachers want nothing more than to return to their classrooms and see their students in person, Freitas said, but they also want to feel confident that schools are taking strict precautions to protect teachers from exposure to the virus.

“Being in a purple, red or maybe even orange (tier) is not safe enough … You need the science there,” Freitas said, referencing the state’s color-coded tiered list governing reopenings.

How students are adapting

The schools that have reopened so far using the state’s elementary waiver process offer the most concrete examples to date of what it means to operate schools in person under the coronavirus pandemic.

Lucerne Valley Unified, a small district in San Bernardino County’s high desert, was the first public school district in the state to get approved for a waiver after it successfully argued that coronavirus cases within the district were lower than the rest of the sprawling county.

The district, which began offering in-person instruction Aug. 20 for K-6 students under hybrid learning, had not reported any coronavirus cases as of Monday, according to Peter Livingston, the school’s superintendent. That, Livingston said, has attracted more families who’d been doing full-time distance learning to shift toward hybrid instruction, where students spend part of their week learning on campus and the rest of it learning remotely.

About 400 out of the elementary school’s 470 students were participating in hybrid learning as of Monday, Livingston said.

The district spent about $100,000, dipping into its savings, to buy sneeze guards, personal protective equipment, plexiglass and a thermal camera that scans students’ temperatures as they enter campus.

Leigh Hannon, a kindergarten teacher at Lucerne Valley Elementary, has been surprised with how well her students, who alternate days of in-person instruction in two cohorts of 9 and 10 kids, have adapted. Hannon has spent less time than she envisioned reinforcing social distancing and the new procedures. Many of her students come to school with masks and take long turns washing their hands, singing songs to ensure thorough scrubbing.

“I’m hoping that people have more faith in kids as far as them understanding what’s going on and understanding that they know how to wash their hands,” she said.

Still, bringing students back has meant forgoing some kindergarten rites of passage. Instead of students sitting on the floor, tight-knit with criss-crossed legs, for story time, her kids listen to stories from their desks, sitting six feet apart behind sneeze guards.

Some of her students have promised Hannon to wear their masks to school if it means being able to come back for the full five days.

“They came in knowing about not touching things and breathing on people,” Hannon said. “It’s still hard to explain to them why they can’t be here every day.”

With more than 17,000 students, the Cajon Valley Union School District east of San Diego is among the largest school districts that have physically reopened and the largest public-school system to have been granted a waiver. The district applied for the waiver when San Diego County was still in the purple, highest-threat tier of the state’s watch list.

David Miyashiro, Cajon Valley’s superintendent, said experience over the last few months operating childcare and in-person summer school programs on campuses with students, as well as good working relationships with the district’s teachers and classified employees’ unions, helped lay the groundwork for hybrid instruction.

The school board also adopted temporary student policies Miyashiro said will help empower teachers to enforce compliance of safety measures among students. About 68% of families have signed up for hybrid instruction.

“There’s just a lot of trust on both sides, I think, that allowed us to get to where we are,” Miyashiro said.

Still, reopening feels worlds away for school districts where communities have been especially affected by the pandemic.

Within the boundaries of the Anaheim Elementary School District in Orange County, five private schools were granted waivers prior to the county moving up the state’stiered list. Starting this week, schools in the county have the green light from the state to offer in-person instruction. While some school districts plan to reopen campuses, Anaheim Elementary will remain in remote learning, superintendent Christopher Downing said, because the district’s transmission rates remain higher than the county’s average.

Anaheim Elementary, where roughly 85% of its 16,700 students come from low-income households, has tried to find other ways to bring back students who need care in person. Through a partnership with the YMCA, about 400 students in transitional kindergarten through sixth grade are receiving assistance with remote learning on campuses.

“We continue to review the data and remain alarmed about the higher numbers within our community and the larger possibility of furthering the spread by returning to in-person instruction at this time,” Anaheim Elementary superintendent Christopher Downing said.

No good options

Diana Marrone asks for a kiss as she buckles her five-year-old daughter Sienna into her carseat as they leave for school on Sept. 22, 2020.Anne Wernikoff / CalMatters

For weeks, Marrone, the Oakley mother, would bring her daughter with her to work in Oakland, trying to prepare her for her Zoom classes while working full time. Getting 5-year-old Sienna to remain focused on her computer was challenging. A full-time job at Seafarers International Union of North America and a full slate of remote learning sometimes meant that the work-slash-school day wouldn’t end until 9 p.m.

“It was stressful and impossible for us to get the work done,” she said.

Then, earlier this month, Marrone received a call from Cornerstone Christian School, a private school she toured earlier this summer as the school planned to physically reopen.

The school got approved by the state and Contra Costa County for an elementary waiver, Marrone was told. Marrone remembered the tour she took, how desks were spaced six feet apart with sneeze guards and handwashing stations across campus. In the months Sienna was enrolled at the Kiddie Academy of Oakley preschool, there had been only one reported student coronavirus case that did not appear to spread to other kids or adults.

Marrone signed a liability waiver and enrolled Sienna at the private school, which she attends in person five days a week.

“It was an unbelievably hard process to get this option, to get my daughter in-person education,” Marrone said. “I just don’t think it should be so difficult.”

CalMatters photographer Anne Wernikoff contributed to this report.

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