California’s two largest school districts, Los Angeles and San Diego, announced on Monday that classes will remain online-only throughout the fall, pointing to a surge in coronavirus cases that could affect teachers as well as students.
“There’s a public health imperative to keep schools from becoming a petri dish,” said Austin Beutner, the school superintendent in Los Angeles, whose county is home to more than a third of the state’s coronavirus cases.
The announcement comes amid a surge in coronavirus cases and fatalities that has forced school districts throughout California to re-evaluate plans for in-person classes. Decisions on reopening California schools are made at the local level, a feature that has created a patchwork of plans – which include online or in-person instruction, or a combination of the two.
But even as southern California’s biggest school districts toggle back reopening plans, education officials in neighboring Orange county, which has emerged as a seat of organized resistance to mandatory mask orders, appears ready to buck the trend.
This week, Orange county education officials are expected to recommend that schools hold in-person instruction in the autumn without requiring that students wear face masks or that schools reduce class sizes to allow for physical distancing. The recommendations came from a group of panelists, which includes health officials, and are included in a report the school board commissioned on how to reopen schools.
“Requiring children to wear masks during school is not only difficult – if not impossible to implement – but not based on science. It may even be harmful,” reads the report, arguing wearing masks could lead to behavioral problems.
The report broadly argues that the negative effects of keeping kids out of schools will outweigh the health risks for children, who have so far largely been spared from the most serious health impacts of the virus.
“Children play a very minor role in the spread of Covid-19,” the report said. “Teachers and staff are in greater danger of infection from other adults, including parents, than from students in their classrooms”.
While the report shares some similarities with guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) – who said that so far little evidence suggests that children are playing a major role in the transmission of Covid-19 – AAP’s guidance underscored the importance of face coverings.
“Evidence continues to mount on the importance of universal face coverings in interrupting the spread of SARS-CoV-2,” it read.
The Orange county report also made the case that masks can be detrimental to child development, arguing: “Mandatory masks may well lead to a spike in childhood behavior problems such as learning disabilities, anxiety disorders, and depression to name a few.”
But Mark Reinecke, clinical director and senior clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, said the claim was not supported. “I’m not aware of any research or evidence that wearing masks will lead to the onset of a depressive disorder, anxiety disorder or a learning disability in children,” said Reinecke.
CDC guidance also advises that children wear a face covering when they are in public settings and unable to maintain physical distancing, and that time with other children should be limited. “Children can pass this virus onto others who have an increased risk of severe illness from Covid-19,” the CDC website reads.
Last week, the California Teachers Association (CTA) sent a letter to the California governor, Gavin Newsom, which said that not all schools were equipped with resources to ensure a safe reopening of schools.
“Since schools closed in March, CTA has said that the health and safety of our students and educators must always be our top priority and our guiding principle during this crisis,” CTA leaders said in the letter.
The debate is under way at the national level, with the US education secretary, Betsy DeVos, saying over the weekend that “the rule should be that kids go back to school this fall”, echoing comments from the American Academy of Pediatrics report.
In its letter to the governor, however, the California Teachers Association pointed to booming infection rates that have made clear that California has yet to contain its surge.
“Simply said, California cannot reopen schools unless they are safe,” said CTA.