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Two small Sierra schools are approved for waivers to reopen for in-person instruction for elementary school students, the first in Fresno County since the coronavirus pandemic closed schools in mid-March.

Hume Lake Charter School, a public K-12 school between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, could reopen to K-6 students as soon as Monday, Fresno County interim health officer Rais Vohra said Tuesday in a media briefing.

He noted that the state has approved waivers for 500 schools so far.

Big Creek Waiver Moot?

Big Creek Elementary, a K-8 school, also had sought a waiver, and Public Health Director David Pomaville said during the briefing that the school’s request was sent to Sacramento with Hume Lake’s. Under current rules, the local public health department makes the final decision about whether to issue a waiver, but the request has to be reviewed by state public health officials.

“I expect that it would have been approved at this point,” he said. “Unfortunately, the circumstances up there (in Big Creek) are very different at this point, but I would have expected that that waiver would have been approved as well.”

The 56 or so students enrolled in the school had to evacuate in advance of the Creek Fire that destroyed dozens of homes in the tiny community that’s home base for Southern California Edison employees who oversee the region’s massive hydroelectric project.

Firefighters were able to save the school and other community buildings, including the church, general store, and post office.

Other Schools Seeking Waivers

Several other Fresno County school also have waiver requests in the pipeline, Vohra said.

Even though Fresno County is still in the purple tier in the state’s reopening plan because of its case and positivity rates, schools may apply for waivers so children in grades kindergarten through six can return to in-person teaching, he said.

“We anticipate that we will be able to grant waivers here in Fresno County to some schools to open up their elementary school grades,” Vohra said.

Immanuel Schools of Reedley, which defied state and local health orders when it reopened for instruction in August and was ordered by a Fresno County judge on Tuesday to close its schools to in-person instruction, has not applied for a waiver, Pomaville said.

Tulare County Limits Waivers

Fresno County has only two schools with waivers so far, unlike Tulare County with at least six and Kings County with three, according to a state Department of Public Health website listing the schools granted waivers.

Tulare County’s schools with waivers are private, church-connected schools, and the waivers are for children in transitional kindergarten through second grade.

When asked if Fresno County would be likelier to approve school waivers if they only applied to those younger students, Pomaville and Vohra agreed that the best approach will be to open schools gradually, and to make sure that staffers are prepared to help contain outbreaks.

“We learned some from opening up before (when the state eased restrictions), and we want to be sure we do this as gradually and as safely as we can, to make sure we don’t slide back,” Pomaville said.

The last thing anyone wants is for schools to open to all students and then, in a short period of time, have to close again due to outbreaks as has happened in other states, Vohra said.

Preparing for Students to Return

Public Health officials are working with school nurses to make sure that thermometers, personal protective equipment, and protocols are in place before students arrive, and to be prepared to participate in outbreak investigations, including testing and contact tracing, Vohra said.

The department will be unable to respond to multiple outbreaks simultaneously, so staff on site will need to shoulder that responsibility, he said.

In addition, the department is working on a mandate for primary care providers to do COVID-19 testing so they can offer it in school neighborhoods for students and school staff, Vohra said.

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