Should My School Be Open?: Looking at Alternative Benchmarks for Reopening Schools

Should My School Be Open?: Looking at Alternative Benchmarks for Reopening Schools

CLICK HERE to see the which benchmarks your county has passed.

It has now been over a month since Governor Newsom introduced his Safe Schools for All plan, which would have allowed schools to reopen soon. How has the school reopening situation changed since then?

Newsom’s plan did not receive the necessary legislative approval by February 1. The California Teachers Association asked Governor Newsom to keep distance learning for another 100 days so a plan could be formed. San Francisco announced they were going to sue their own school district, and Los Angeles might be doing that as well soon. On top of all of that, editorials from the major California newspapers, the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, have asked for schools to reopen. This debate has muddied the waters for parents and children wanting to go back to school.

According to The Sacramento Bee, Newsom and the California Legislature may have a reopening deal sometime this week. Yet many other states have already welcomed students back to class from winter break.

We wanted to see whether California counties would be free to reopen schools looking at alternative benchmarks. For this examination, we are looking at elementary schools only.

Newsom Looks to Harvard

As a part of Newsom’s introduction of his Safe Schools for All plan, he revised his previous reopening benchmark, which stated that counties that were not in the purple tier could reopen. The new benchmark requires the county to have less than 25 new (adjusted) COVID cases per 100,000 people. This metric was based on a recommendation from the Harvard Global Health Institute.

Thirty-six counties have reached that benchmark, which would encompass 29% of all Californians. If they stay there for at least five days, they would be eligible to reopen under Newsom’s plan. Notable counties that have reached that benchmark include Santa Clara, Sacramento, Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Francisco.

The Teachers Unions: Red/Orange Tier Benchmark

Earlier this week, the city of San Francisco made a tentative deal with their teachers union, the United Educators of San Francisco. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Tatiana Sanchez and Jill Tucker, the two sides decided that if vaccines were available for school staff, schools could reopen in the red tier (the second most restrictive tier in California). But if the vaccines would not be available for school staff, then they could only open in the orange tier (the third most restrictive tier).

To get into the red tier, a county needs less than seven (adjusted) cases per 100,000 people, a positivity rate of under 8%, and a health equity quartile of under 8% for two straight weeks. To get into the orange tier, a county needs less than four (adjusted) cases per 100,000, a positivity rate of under 5%, and a health equity quartile of under 5.3% for two straight weeks.

Looking at the current California Blueprint Data Chart, only five counties are in the red tier or lower, while only three counties are in the orange tier or lower. They are some of the smallest counties in the state. Even if a county did get the numbers that would qualify them for the red tier, such as San Francisco, they would have to keep those numbers for two weeks before qualifying for a lower tier. Governor Newsom has suggested that schools can reopen as vaccinations of teachers are ongoing, but it may still take weeks if not months before a reopening could occur with those benchmarks. Also, there is no mandate that they have to reopen once they reach that tier, so more deals like the one in San Francisco need to be completed for this reopening plan to work.

Should California Have a New York State of Mind?

Back in July, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his school reopening plan for the state of New York. He had broken up the state into ten different regions. If a region had under a 5% positivity rate (3% for New York City) using a 14 day moving average after the initial lockdown last spring, it could reopen schools (All regions reached that threshold). Following that, if a region had a positivity rate of 9% or more using a 7 day moving average, it would be required to close those schools until it went under that threshold again. As reported by Spectrum News NY 1, Governor Cuomo has recently suggested that school districts did not have to close down again if their positivity rates were not higher than the surrounding community and the school districts approve of keeping them open.

With PCR positivity data from the CDC from January 30 through February 5, we can determine which California counties pass Cuomo’s benchmark. If Governor Cuomo’s benchmark of under 9% positivity was applied to California counties, at least twenty-eight counties would have passed that benchmark, which would cover 40% of California. Some counties that have currently passed Cuomo’s benchmark are San Diego, Santa Clara, Alameda, Sacramento, Contra Costa, and San Francisco.

REACH(ING) for An Answer on Reopening

In January, Douglas N. Harris, Engy Ziedan, and Susan Hassig at the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice (REACH) published a report creating a metric that could determine when schools could reopen. They found that it is probably safe “to reopen schools when there are no more than 36 to 44 total new COVID hospitalizations per 100,000 per week.” Using their hospitalization data provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, we can infer that forty-two counties out of the fifty-six counties examined have reached this benchmark. This would have covered 41% of Californians. Notable counties that have currently passed the REACH benchmark are Riverside, Santa Clara, Alameda, Sacramento, Contra Costa, and San Francisco.


There is no one perfect benchmark to decide when it is appropriate to reopen schools. But consulting on multiple benchmarks and seeing the data from states that have reopened schools, it seems clear that in many of the counties in California, schools should have the opportunity to reopen immediately.

List of Counties that Have Hit At Least Three of the Listed Benchmarks

  • Santa Clara
  • Alameda
  • Sacramento
  • Contra Costa
  • San Francisco
  • San Mateo
  • Sonoma
  • San Luis Obispo
  • Santa Cruz
  • Marin
  • Butte
  • Yolo
  • El Dorado
  • Imperial
  • Napa
  • Humboldt
  • Nevada
  • Lake
  • Del Norte
  • Mariposa
  • Trinity
  • Sierra
  • Alpine

UPDATE (2/12): Some of the larger school districts did submit COVID safety plans for Safe Schools for All. You can find that information here. This article has been edited.

UPDATE (2/17): Correctly edited the number of weeks need to move to lower tier (two, not three)

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Brandon Ristoff is a policy analyst for the California Policy Center.

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