OAKLAND, Calif. — California schools could welcome back students this summer and retail and manufacturing businesses could reopen in the coming weeks, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday as he offered his most concrete glimpse yet of what a gradual reopening may look like.
With health care capacity and hospitalizations stabilizing, Newsom said the state is “weeks, not months” away from making “meaningful modifications” to a statewide order that has relegated Californians to their homes for nearly six weeks. On Tuesday, Newsom said schools could start the next academic year early, possibly in late July or early August, though he did not specify how much instruction could occur on campuses.
“We are considering the prospect of an even earlier school year,” Newsom said, adding that “we need to start preparing for the physical changes in the schools.”
State Public Health Officer Sonia Angell explained that an earlier school year will not only help students make up learning gaps due to current campus closures, but also help parents return to full-time work.
One of Newsom’s preconditions for curtailing coronavirus-related restrictions is ensuring that schools and businesses can safeguard the health of their staff and maintain safe distances between students and customers. He had previously said that might look like schools staggering class times and restaurants offering fewer tables.
Some businesses are able to operate with more social distance than others, and Newsom described a hierarchy of which industries can emerge from the lockdown first: some retail and manufacturing that have been closed because they are in “nonessential” sectors.
“The goal here will be creating opportunities for lower-risk sectors to adapt and reopen,” Angell said, which would entail making “the workspace environment as safe as possible.”
Among the types of businesses that could ramp up sooner, Angell said, are manufacturers of “nonessential” products like toys and furniture; retail establishments offering curbside pickup; and businesses that don’t adapt well to remote work, like public relations or consulting firms, returning to office spaces.
She also said Californians may be able to return to outdoor spaces like parks and trails that have been cordoned off around the state.
But nail salons, gyms, movie theaters and in-person religious services would still have to wait until another phase in which the state would have more confidence that infection risk is lower.
California is pushing businesses to cover ailing workers’ wages so they can stay home to avoid infecting others.
Major events like concerts, conventions and live spectator sports would remain prohibited until the statewide stay-at-home order ends. Newsom and other California officials, like Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, have said it is unlikely such mass social gatherings can resume until a vaccine or herd immunity emerge; his slides Tuesday said they cannot open until “therapeutics have been developed.”
“We are not going back to the way things were until we get the kind of immunity or vaccine that we look forward to,” Newsom said.
Whichever month students return to classrooms, “school will look very different,” Angell said. Earlier in the day, California Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond told lawmakers that’s likely to involve a blended learning model in which students rotate shifts of online learning and in-person learning on certain days of the week to limit contact.
Some school districts have also discussed continuing instruction beyond the normal end of the school year or opening the next school year earlier to make up for lost learning time, Darling-Hammond told lawmakers at an Assembly Education Committee hearing Tuesday. She pointed to Singapore’s school year schedule, where 11 weeks of teaching are followed by two weeks of recess over four quarters of the year in order to limit learning loss that students experience over summer break.
And Darling-Hammond echoed Newsom’s cautionary note that the state could ratchet up restrictions again if the virus resurges, saying the state is preparing for schools to have to close down again, potentially in the fall or winter, if another wave hits.
The physical readiness of schools and businesses is only one part of Newsom’s six-point framework for reopening. California will also need to obtain more protective gear and bolster its capacity for testing, with Newsom saying the state must be able to conduct at least 60,000 to 80,000 tests a day — at least triple the state’s current capacity of more than 20,000 a day.