Feb 11 2021

Marin County: Leveraging Education and Public Health Partnerships to Support School Reopening

Since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in March 2020, districts across the nation have faced the difficult task of reopening schools safely and keeping them open as community infection rates have risen and fallen. Marin County, CA, offers one useful example of a thoughtful approach to school opening that involves collaboration and communication among school districts, the county office of education, and the county health office.

Although the county has experienced widespread community transmission—and is categorized in California’s most restrictive tier (purple) according to the state’s system for tracking counties—Marin has been able to bring back special education students in small instructional groups and reopen more than 85% of its schools for in-person learning since the fall of 2020. From September 8, 2020, through January 29, 2021, schools in the county operated for 91 in-person school days and 899,175 student days. As of January 29, there were only nine suspected cases of in-school transmission.

Drawing from county and district documents and resources, as well as interviews with staff at the Marin County Office of Education and the Larkspur-Corte Madera School District, this profile describes how Marin County has organized and accomplished this work. Where applicable, links are provided to resources that may be useful for policymakers and educators who are designing school reopening plans.

The COVID-19 Context in Marin County

California state COVID-19 policies have guided Marin County’s approach to reopening schools. In California, every county is assigned to one of four tiers (purple for widespread transmission, red for substantial, orange for moderate, and yellow for minimal) based on each county’s test positivity and case rates, with rates adjusted for a county’s testing volume. Tier status dictates which sectors (e.g., businesses, schools) must be closed in a county, and it establishes the conditions for reopening.

The least restrictive yellow tier corresponds to positivity rates below 2%. The most restrictive purple tier corresponds to positivity rates exceeding 8%. Schools that were already open prior to a county’s shift to purple— as occurred in Marin—or prior to case rates exceeding 25 per 100,000 people are permitted to remain open.

When schools in Marin County were first beginning to reopen in fall 2020, the state required school districts in purple-tier counties to receive an Elementary Education Waiver from their county public health offices before reopening elementary grades (transitional kindergarten through grade 6). Waivers did not allow districts in purple-tier counties to reopen upper grades.

In January 2021, the state released an updated guidance framework that replaced the Elementary Education Waiver, although waivers approved prior to January 14, 2021, remain valid. The new guidance continues to prohibit reopening for grades 7–12 in the purple tier, but it allows schools to reopen transitional kindergarten through grade 6 if county case rates are below 25 per 100,000 people and if districts complete and post a COVID-19 Safety Plan. Districts must post their plans on their home pages and submit them to their local health officers and the State Safe Schools for All team. Local health departments and/or the state team have 7 business days from the time of submission to provide feedback and identify plan deficiencies. If they do not provide feedback within 7 days, schools can reopen on the eighth business day (Table 1).

Like many other school districts throughout California, schools in Marin County closed during the state’s first wave of COVID-19 cases in spring 2020. Based on the recommendation of the county’s public health officer, districts suspended in-school instruction for a minimum of 2 weeks beginning March 16, 2020. With the exception of special education and alternative education programs (described below), and summer learning programs run through one district (Sausalito Marin City School District) in the county, schools remained closed to in-person instruction until September 8, 2020, when Marin County Public Health approved waiver applications that would allow schools to reopen campuses for in-person instruction. The county approved 15 elementary schools, clearing them to reopen campuses. At that time, COVID-19 case and positivity rates in the county were declining, although the county remained in the purple tier. Marin County moved from the purple tier to the red tier on September 15 and from the red tier to the orange tier on October 27. More schools reopened without waivers as the county shifted to less restrictive tiers.

In November 2020, California began undergoing a third COVID-19 wave. Although Marin was one of the last counties in the state to do so, on December 8, the county shifted back to the purple tier due to widespread transmission of the virus. During this period, schools in Marin County remained open, though some, such as Larkspur-Corte Madera School District, closed for a brief period following the Thanksgiving holiday to allow time for COVID-19 testing and for symptoms to emerge in individuals who may have contracted the virus during the break. (See “Implementing Mitigation Strategies in Larkspur-Corte Madera School District.”)

As of January 28, 2021, Marin County remained in the purple tier and had a reported positive test rate of 4.4% and an adjusted case rate of 16.8 per 100,000 residents. Despite widespread transmission, as of January 29, MCOE reported that 55% of the county’s 39,654 students were enrolled in site-based classroom instruction. In addition, Marin County Public Health and MCOE reported that 87% of schools (100 schools) in the county were conducting in-person instruction and that between September 8, 2020, and January 29, 2021, a cumulative total of 151 students and 38 staff tested positive for COVID-19, with only nine cases identified as suspected in-school transmission over the course of 91 in-person school days. For the nine suspected in-school transmissions, four cases were student to student, three were staff to staff, and two were staff to student; there were no suspected cases of transmission from student to staff. None of these cases required hospitalization. (See Figure 1.)

Preparing to Reopen: Learning in Stages

As soon as schools closed in March 2020, MCOE and Marin County Public Health officials began developing reopening plans. MCOE established its Rethinking Schools Task Force to create a centralized group of county office staff who would focus on developing reopening strategies. The task force committed early on to basing its work in science and identified key partners, including Marin County Public Health. This partnership between education and public health offices involved intensive collaboration, with the county superintendent of schools and the public health officer engaging in near daily communication.

On March 13, 2020—the same day that the public health officer recommended suspending classroom instruction—Marin County Public Health issued a Public Health Advisory that provided guidance for operating emergency pop-up child care for frontline healthcare workers, with locations established at school sites and community centers that were near the county’s three major hospitals. Initially, the county started small with 11 children spread out across three child care centers; this soon grew to six pop-up centers, with one to three cohorts each and no more than 12 children per cohort at each site.

In “Come Back California”—a website established by the California Collaborative for Excellence in Education to provide resources on school reopening—the Collaborative describes the reopening process in Marin County. From March through June 30, pop-up child care centers served 3,424 student days. Over this time period, two siblings attending child care at different sites tested positive. MCOE worked collaboratively with Marin County Public Health to shut down the cohorts and engage in contact tracing, which allowed public health officials to identify a third, potentially unrelated case.

Using lessons learned from the implementation of pop-up child care centers, the task force developed plans for delivering in-person instruction safely that included the use of mitigation strategies, such as physical distancing and small student cohorts. MCOE used these plans to implement in-person learning for a subset of students through special education and alternative education spring pilot programs, which allowed the county to further refine its reopening strategy, while also providing safe in-person learning to small cohorts of some of the county’s most vulnerable students.

This iterative process of developing, implementing, and refining reopening plans informed the creation of template documents for exposure protocols, communication, and decision trees, which were developed to help district and school staff respond to a range of potential scenarios that could arise during in-person learning. For example, protocols were developed for responding to in-school exposures to COVID-19, deciding when to close a cohort to in-person learning, structuring classroom space to maximize physical distancing, and using personal protective equipment (PPE). Based on the success of the spring pilot, MCOE developed summer in-person special education and alternative education programs, which allowed MCOE to deliver in-person, extended learning opportunities to vulnerable students.

Lessons learned from implementation of pop-up child care sites and spring pilot programs also informed the development of the Marin County School Guidelines, a 30-point plan that was co-developed by MCOE and Marin County Public Health and released in June 2020. This document lists key strategies each school site should implement in order to reopen safely. These mitigation strategies include using face coverings, implementing physical distancing, encouraging frequent handwashing, restricting large gatherings, providing PPE and training to educators, and testing and quarantine measures. The guidelines also specify that elementary schools should maintain stable classroom cohorts, which may be up to standard class size for each grade level, but must prevent mixing of cohorts. For middle schools and high schools, cohorts may consist of more than one classroom but must avoid schoolwide mixing of students and staff. (See “Implementing Mitigation Strategies in Larkspur-Corte Madera School District” for a description of how these recommendations have been implemented at the district level.)

Engaging and Supporting Reopening in Districts

The Marin County School Guidelines serve as the starting point for districts planning to reopen. This document provides the framework for the School Site Specific Protection Plan (SSSPP) that schools or districts must develop and submit to Marin County Public Health for review. To protect the safety of the school community, the SSSPP is built around an assumption that each student or staff member may be an asymptomatic carrier.

To support implementation of SSSPPs, MCOE and Marin County Public Health have established staffing structures, communication strategies, and training opportunities for school and district staff as well as parents. For example, the county requires that each school site designate two public health liaisons who act as points of contact with Marin County Public Health. These liaisons receive training that builds their capacity to respond to concerns, support mitigation efforts, and deal with potential exposures at their school sites. In addition, weekly Zoom meetings create a space for public health liaisons, Marin County Public Health staff, and the Rethinking Schools Task Force to discuss and review challenges and successes, share best practices, and identify the need for potential changes to protocols. To make school reopening and COVID-19 transmission data transparent and easily accessible, MCOE and Marin County Public Health collaboratively maintain a dashboard that displays in-school transmission metrics, the number of schools operating in-person or remotely, and the number of students and staff who have tested positive. MCOE also created the “Rethinking Schools” website to serve as a platform for sharing documents, protocols, and trainings with schools and districts.

MCOE and Marin County Public Health also sought to remedy concerns that school community members might have about returning to in-person instruction by seeking and incorporating input from administrators, teachers, parents, and labor unions during the development of the Marin County School Guidelines. MCOE has helped schools and districts establish school site walk-through activities, which are designed to help community members—including staff, students, and parents—gain familiarity with the implementation of health and safety measures. In addition to leveraging these supports, some districts have developed agreements with their teachers unions through memoranda of understanding (MOUs) that address teacher health and safety in the context of reopening plans. (See “Implementing Mitigation Strategies in Larkspur-Corte Madera School District.”)

In addition, Marin County Public Health assembled a team of nurses to provide 24/7 support to schools during instances of potential COVID-19 exposures. School administrators and public health liaisons have a direct line to this team, which initiates the process of contact tracing for COVID-19 positive cases and guides school staff on procedures related to potential exposures, including quarantining and deciding when to close a cohort.

MCOE credits Marin’s successful reopening to several factors: intensive collaboration with schools, communities, educators, and public health; a mission-driven focus on getting students back to school safely using a continuous improvement approach; and districts’ desire for strong, science-based public health guidance to inform their decisions and implementation. Marin County offers lessons in how schools can be safely reopened with well-funded, carefully designed, and rigorously implemented mitigation measures in place.

Marin County: Leveraging Education and Public Health Partnerships to Support School Reopening (research brief) by Naomi Ondrasek, Natalie Truong, and Adam K. Edgerton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This work was supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation and Silver Giving Foundation. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, and Sandler Foundation.