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New guidelines from the California Department of Public Health opens the door to allowing small numbers of students back on campuses closed since March 13.

A lot of details remain to be hashed out, and Valley officials on Wednesday were studying the Cohorting Guidance to learn how it might apply in local schools.

Jim Yovino Fresno County Superintendent of Schools

Jim Yovino, Fresno County Superintendent of Schools

One thing is immediately clear, Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Jim Yovino told GV Wire℠: The state is not giving schools the green light to reopen to general education students now.

The guidelines are designed to provide in-person, on-site instruction to small groups of students who have the greatest need. They are youngsters with disabilities, special education students, those in foster homes and the homeless, English learners, students at risk of abuse or neglect, and students at higher risk of learning loss because of distance learning or who are not participating in distance learning.

“It’s very limited,” Yovino said about the state’s Cohorting Guidance. “But I think it’s a great first step to get the kids who really need the services.”

Cohorting Guidance Sets Limits

The new guidelines permit small groups, or cohorts, containing no more than two supervising adults and no more than 14 students.

Students and adults in the cohort would not mingle with students or adults in other cohorts to minimize the possible spread of the highly contagious coronavirus.

Adults and students would need to wear face masks and stay 6 feet away from each other, so the size of the cohort could be smaller if the available space would not allow participants to remain 6 feet apart.

The new guidance allows schools that are closed to in-person instruction because of the July 17 state mandate to form cohorts. With the exception of several private Christian schools, schools across Fresno County are on distance learning because of the county’s high coronavirus infection rates.

Under the state mandate, schools must remain closed until the counties are off the state’s COVID-19 watchlist for 14 consecutive days.

The Cohort Guidance, however, allows school officials to develop plans in collaboration with labor partners and local health officials. “Express approval” from the health department is not required, but school officials are “required to adhere to any applicable, more restrictive local public health directive,” which could include an order issued by the county health officer.

What’s Next Here

Yovino said he is planning to meet Thursday with the county’s Public Health director, David Pomaville, and interim county health officer Dr. Rais Vohra to discuss how the Cohorting Guidance can be implemented in Fresno County.

Sim Dhillon, spokesman for the Public Health Department, said Pomaville and Vohra were reviewing the state guidelines Wednesday morning and were not immediately available for comment.

The Fresno County Public Health Department had previously signed off on local plans developed through the Office of the Superintendent of Schools in concert with school districts to allow individual students on-campus for in-person special education assessments that are required by federal law, and also in-person instruction for individual students with special needs, Yovino said.

The local guidelines limit the students’ time on campus to no more than two hours at a time and no more than two days each week.

The state’s Cohorting Guidance “expands what we were doing,” Yovino said.

Assessments Are Overdue

Fresno Teachers Association President Manuel Bonilla said the special education assessments have not yet begun but will have to soon. That’s because schools need to catch up on assessments that were suspended after schools closed and are now overdue.

Bonilla said Wednesday morning that he was still reviewing the details of the Cohorting Guidance to see the potential impact on school staff.

“As a general response, our position won’t change in regard to safety,” he said. Before schools can reopen even to small groups of students, Fresno Unified will need to provide well-detailed plans spelling out safety protocols, Bonilla said.

Fresno Unified spokeswoman Nikki Henry said Tuesday that the district was reviewing the Cohorting Guidance and had no immediate comment about potential impacts on the district.

Spokeswomen for Clovis and Central unified school districts did not respond to requests for comment.

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