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When is it considered safe enough to reopen California’s classrooms?

As nearly all of California’s schools forge into the new academic year with virtual learning, everyone wants to know how soon it’ll be safe for students and teachers to return to real classrooms.

While some experts — from Stanford researchers to the Centers for Disease Control — say the sooner schools can reopen for in-person instruction with proper precautions the better, many teachers and their unions across the state are advocating for more cautious approaches.

Accounts and images from other parts of the country where students have returned to classrooms — such as rural and suburban areas of Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi — may provide a cautionary tale of getting the timing and conditions are wrong.

In Cherokee County, Georgia, for example, almost 1,200 students and staff members were ordered to quarantine earlier this week when an outbreak of coronavirus forced the closure of two high schools less than two weeks after they reopened, according to the New York Times.

Sohil Sud, an associate professor at UCSF School of Medicine, says the single biggest predictor of a successful return to in-person learning within schools is what’s happening with COVID-19 transmission outside of schools.

“With ample evidence of substantial community transmission in Cherokee County, GA, it was unfortunately almost inevitable that they were going to struggle with restarting in-person education, irrespective of measures taken within the school,” Sohil said in an email. “To put some numbers around it, the Cherokee County’s transmission rate is almost five times higher than that which the state of California recommends for school reopening considerations.”

Under current California restrictions laid out by Gov. Gavin Newsom last month, schools in counties on the state’s “watchlist” — where more than 90% of Californians live — are prohibited from opening classroom doors without a special waiver. A county can jump off the governor’s watch list and allow schools to open again when it meets certain thresholds for 14 consecutive days, including at least 80% ICU bed availability, a positive test rate of less than 8% and case rates below 10 per 10,000 population.

State schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond said that unlike other states, California is lucky in that its metrics for a safe reopening of schools are “really clear.”

“While we know that there’s nothing better than in-person instructions as it related to the needs of the students, that is the safest thing we can do right now,” Thurmond said in a news conference on Friday.

UNION CITY, CA – AUGUST 13: An empty play structure is photographed at Alvarado Elementary School in Union City, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

But once schools are allowed to reopen either because a county was taken off the watch list or they were granted a waiver to reopen, not everyone agrees on the criteria that should be used to establish when it is really safe to bring students back.

Before the governor announced new restrictions on school reopenings, teachers unions across the state were in resistance mode, saying districts did not have enough resources, personal protective equipment or physical space to make sure all the necessary safety measures were put in place.

Some teachers unions in California have joined a growing national movement that calls for schools to remain closed for in-person classes until there isn’t a single new COVID-19 case in their area for 14 consecutive days.

“To follow the CDC and OSHA and county office of public health guidelines — all of that seems super logical to me,” said San Ramon Valley Teachers Association President Ann Katzburg, who supports the no cases in 14 days rule. “I think we need to ease the worry first and then we can go back.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late last month published a statement in alignment with President Donald Trump calling on education officials to reopen schools.

“Reopening schools creates opportunity to invest in the education, well-being, and future of one of America’s greatest assets — our children — while taking every precaution to protect students, teachers, staff and all their families,” the agency wrote in the statement.

SAN JOSE – AUGUST 11: Library media center technician Britt Null, left, gets school material organized for students to pick up at Empire Gardens Elementary School in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (Randy Vazquez/ Bay Area News Group)

Dr. Naomi Bardach, an associate professor of pediatrics and health policy and a pediatrician at the University of California-San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital, echoed that same sentiment during a teleconference this week when she said the state “needs to think about opening schools before bars and restaurants.”

Bardach, a parent herself, noted that while the threat of the disease not only to children but also to their teachers and parents is real, “We’re not tracking harms associated with school closure,” such as loss of learning, obesity, mental health and child abuse from parents stressed from job loss and stay-home orders.

Bardach said reopening schools safely can easily be done in elementary schools, as research has shown that preadolescent children are less vulnerable to COVID-19 and less likely to spread it than adolescent teens and adults.

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association in May found that preadolescent children produce less of an enzyme that serves as a doorway to the virus than older children and adults. Younger children also have smaller lungs and are lower to the ground, so if infected they would be less likely to spread the virus to adults and others, according to Bardach.

Experience in other areas of the country and the globe show that where school outbreaks have occurred, they mostly involve older students and lax observances of basic public health principles, such as social distancing and mask mandates. The outbreaks in Georgia high schools earlier this week, for instance, came after photos showed students walking down crowded high school hallways without wearing masks. The district there was “encouraging” students to wear masks rather than mandating it.

Bardach said observations of indoor summer camps in San Francisco over the summer showed that when young children properly wear masks and observe basic hygiene practices, outbreaks can be avoided.

“Schools likely need to be considered like adult workplaces,” Bardach said. “The implication is that it’s possible to follow public health principles, and it can lead to limited or zero infections.”

Staff writers Erin Woo and John Woolfolk contributed to this story. 

Source: Orange County Register

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