During the Covid-19 pandemic, the role of schools in the community has been drastically changed to meet the needs of students and adjust to the crisis. Amongst the areas of school district operations put in question is the status of school construction projects. The actions taken by the state officials and some county officials are outlined below to clarify what considerations must be made to determine if school construction can continue and actions that must be taken if projects carry on.
To summarize, based on the Executive Order and Initial Orders, construction work on school sites is permissible due to the designation of public works construction projects as critical, and the workers on these sites as part of the essential workforce.
However, in the counties where Supplemental Orders have been issued, the designation of construction as critical or essential, and therefore the permissibility for construction to continue is not guaranteed. For work to carry on at a construction site, the lead governmental agency in charge of the project must declare that the project is an “Essential Government Function.” In addition, for all projects that are determined and declared to be Essential Government Functions there must be social distancing protocols established, implemented, and enforced in a formalized way. At the school district level this means that school boards must take action before work can carry on.
Determining Status of School District Construction Projects
While schools throughout the state have closed for the remainder of the academic year, administrators at the local level are working to ensure that distance learning is properly and fairly implemented, meals are provided to children, and school sites are protected and cleaned, amongst various other duties. Questions related to construction projects and their viability at this time have floated around as school districts aim to determine if the work on these sites is permitted.
The determination of the project as essential and necessary to carry on is a case by case process. Districts should review the work being done to determine if it is essential to the operation of the school district now or when schooling resumes at a later date. To make this determination, all school districts should review the order or guidance issued by their county officials to determine what is permitted in the county and what specific actions, if any, are required. Additionally, the safety of workers on the sites should be considered and appropriate sanitary and social distancing action should be taken in an effort to limit the spread of illness.
State and County Orders
On March 19, 2020 Governor Newsom issued Executive Order N-33-20 related to the Covid-19 pandemic. The order instructed all Californians to stay at home and to take social distancing measures to help in slowing the spread of the virus throughout the state. The Governor's order also referred to categories of “critical infrastructure” that are permitted to carry on work. The Governor's office relied on federal characterization of critical infrastructures categories when choosing this language. Government facilities constitute a critical infrastructure category, and education facilities are included as a government facility.
Following this order, many counties throughout California issued orders with further instruction for the residents of the counties to adhere to (“Initial Orders”). These Initial Orders were meant to act as complimentary to the Governor's order and provided local guidance. In many of the counties where this type of order was issued, the term “essential” was used to define the permitted exemptions, rather than the state language of “critical.”
As the month of March ended, several counties took further action through new orders, which were meant to extend the previously issued orders (“Supplemental Orders”). In addition to an extension of the timeline for staying at home, these Supplemental Orders provided greater guidance defining what is deemed “essential” during this time and therefore what workers are exempt from staying at home. Although workers in these essential categories can continue to work, the Supplemental Orders require implementation of social distancing protocols and procedures where work is being done and official authorization for work to take place.
It is important that each school district with construction projects in progress review their own county's most recent order or statement related to Covid-19 to understand the actions being taken to slow the spread of the virus and to determine what the necessary next steps are for construction work in the district.
 The specific initial county orders described in this memo are those worked on collectively and given in the Bay Area counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Santa Clara, San Francisco and San Mateo.
 The details given related to the Supplemental Orders describe the orders worked on collectively and given in the Bay Area counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Santa Clara, San Francisco and San Mateo.
- Executive Order N-33-20
- The State Public Health Officer's list of “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers”
- March 19, 2020 Order of the Public Health Officer
- US Department of Homeland Security Website – Identifying Critical Infrastructure
- Order of the Health Office of the County of Santa Clara
- Coalition of Adequate School Housing Webinar Presentation Slides