California readies for worst-case scenarios as virus spreads

Full Screen
1 / 4

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

California Gov. Gavin Newsom updates the state's response to the coronavirus, at the Governor's Office of Emergency Services in Rancho Cordova Calif., Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, Pool)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Gov. Gavin Newsom's assessment that it's likely “few if any” California schools will reopen before summer break surprised parents, who wondered Wednesday how distance learning would work.

David De Leon, whose son is an 8th-grader in Santa Ana, said he was shocked by the announcement.

“I don’t know if it’s viable,” De Leon said. “To throw it out for everyone to use until the end of the school year I think is unreasonable.”

Before his son’s school shut down, he was told to take all his schoolbooks and school-assigned Chromebook home. For now, teachers are suggesting that kids use certain academic programs until they can develop a distance learning curriculum, he said.

Some parents are making their children get up at the same hour as if they are in school and have a scheduled day of online learning. Others are taking advantage of the online resources provided by school districts, like “Skype with a scientist” offered by the San Diego Unified School District, and virtual tours through museums worldwide.

Elena Lujan-Alba said her own daughter who is in 10th grade is already missing out on testing for her Advanced Placement classes. But the San Diego high school teacher, whose husband is a math consultant for schools, is not as worried about keeping their two daughters up with academics as much as she is about their social activities.

“We try to manage the kids’ expectations. I tell them, ‘Guys you know that probably won’t happen,' to prepare them mentally. Then it’s like OK, that’s not happening. It’s like stages of grief, of letting go,” Lujan-Alba said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, which normally serves a million meals a day to students in the nation's second-largest school district, on Wednesday debuted 60 “grab and go" stations to distribute breakfasts and lunches — a major scale-down from initial plans for family resource centers offering childcare and other services.

Asked about the governor's assessment, Superintendent Austin Beutner would only say there would be information coming to the school community on Monday.

Newsom said Tuesday that nearly 99% of the state's K-12 schools are shuttered for periods generally ranging from two to five weeks.

"It is unlikely that many of these schools, few if any, will open before the summer break," he said, urging the more than 6 million schoolchildren and their families to make long-term plans.

The state has applied for a federal waiver that means children would not have to face academic tests once they eventually return to school, said Newsom, a first-term Democrat.

“We think it is totally inappropriate for kids to worry about coming back and being tested," he said.

While urging Californians to stay united and promising “we will get back to the life that we have lived,” Newsom also acknowledged that much is unknown and so the state is preparing for frightening worst-case scenarios.

The California National Guard is on alert for potential duties that include humanitarian missions like ensuring proper food distribution and public safety as some grocery stores resorted to rationing to control panic buying.

Newsom said the state is acquiring two vacant hospitals to beef up capacity as it faces the possibility of a surge of hospital patients. California also is negotiating with about 900 hotels to acquire tens of thousands of rooms that could be used for hospital patients and for the homeless, a group particularly susceptible to coronavirus, which is spread by coughs and sneezes.

The virus is affecting every aspect of life in California and is devastating many of the state's key industries.

With the state’s reserves approaching $21 billion, Newsom said the state has more money in its savings account than ever before. But he warned that “the magnitude of this moment may exceed those reserves.”

The state Legislature approved $1.1 billion in emergency spending Monday and then voted to suspend its session in what is believed to be the first unexpected work stoppage in 158 years. Lawmakers went one step further Tuesday by closing both the Capitol and the Legislative Office Building to the public “until further notice.”

It's all part of a rapidly escalating reaction that saw three more Northern California counties on Tuesday follow the example of those in the San Francisco Bay Area that told residents to stay at home and go outside only for food, medicine and other essential needs.

At a news conference, Newsom did not announce a similar requirement statewide, but previously told bars, restaurants, movie theaters, fitness centers and other gathering places to shut their doors as the death toll crept to 13 and the number of confirmed cases neared 600. All people 65 and older and those with underlying health conditions have been encouraged to stay indoors.

Orange County's public health officer issued an order Tuesday banning public and private gatherings — except for households — closing bars, and requiring restaurants to only serve takeout orders. But the county quickly had to clarify that it was neither an order to shelter in place nor a lockdown.

“Unfortunately, the order as written caused wide-spread confusion," a county statement said. “In order to provide additional clarity requested by Orange County residents and businesses, the county will be issuing an amended health officer's order."

In readying the National Guard for action, Newsom's office emphasized that it's for duties routinely performed during natural disasters and other emergencies. But Newsom grimly added that “we have the ability to do martial law ... if we feel the necessity."

Imposing martial law would take the extraordinary step of replacing the usual laws with military authority, with the possible suspension of civil liberties like freedom of association and movement.

U.S. and California health officials have repeatedly warned that the virus could have a devastating impact and that the timetable for controlling it isn't known. President Donald Trump on Monday said the crisis could last until August.

California's 415 hospitals have been planning for a surge of patients. They have about 88,000 beds, and Newsom said health officials are running models to determine needs based on various infection rates and resulting hospitalizations. Under worst-case scenarios, California could be short 20,000 beds, he said.

He said the state should have the two large hospitals in its possession as early as Friday and will use money from the emergency authorization to get them ready for service.


Associated Press journalists Amy Taxin in Santa Ana, Julie Watson in San Diego, John Antczak in Los Angeles and Kathleen Ronayne and Cuneyt Dil in Sacramento contributed to this story.