In summary

Debates on when to reopen schools in California center on different assessments of COVID-19 risk, but there are other factors.

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By Alicia R. Riley, Special to CalMatters

Alicia R. Riley is a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Epidemiology & Biostatistics at UC San Francisco and a member of the San Diego County COVID-19 Equity Taskforce Data Subcommittee,

More than 6 million children are enrolled in public schools across California, but only a small fraction are attending school in person. When can the rest of children in California return to school? 

Many think the answer lies in the science of COVID-19, but it may actually lie in how we vote in November.   

Current debates on school reopening center on different assessments of COVID-19 risk. On one hand, available scientific evidence suggests that the risks to any individual child’s health from in-person school are extremely low because severe reactions and death from COVID-19 are rare, particularly for elementary-aged children. As for the long-term health of children, the science suggests there are vast benefits associated with public schooling for health and health equity.   

On the other hand, reopening schools is seen as problematic for several reasons. First, available evidence on school-based infections is insufficient due to a lack of systematic testing, data transparency, and simply time. Second, the most severe health consequences of COVID-19 are affecting Black and Latinx children more than White children. Third, the risks of severe infection vary across age groups such that returning to in-person learning may be more acceptable for elementary school children, than for older children. Finally, without adequate protections, school reopening increases the risk of infection for teachers and school staff and is likely to drive some community transmission.   

The debate seems like a choice between school reopening or COVID-19 safety. Yet the key to getting us out of this tragic tradeoff is actually not the science – it is the resources.  Waiting for the science to advance will not solve California’s problem, which is that public schools, especially those in low-income communities of color, do not have the resources it takes to keep students and staff safe at school.    

Years of underfunding of public schools and public health have left many school districts unable to provide in-person education while minimizing COVID-19 risk – in part because they lack the infrastructure and resources to mitigate transmission in schools. Take, for example, where I went to high school. Sweetwater Union High School District, which includes neighborhoods with some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection and death in the state, just announced that it will continue distance learning through the end of 2020.    

Meanwhile, elementary students at La Jolla Country Day School, where annual tuition is $37,130, and other private schools and school districts in affluent areas have been attending school in-person since August. These schools, like schools in other countries, are demonstrating that with adequate investment in mitigation measures and proactive testing, we can avoid a tradeoff between education and health.   

Just as our COVID-19 case and death rates tell a story of two Californias, so do our school reopening plans.    

Affluent parents with options have unenrolled their children from yet-to-reopen public schools complaining they’ve been failed by district leadership. But Californians must stop blaming schools for the consequences of our own choices as voters.   

Through measures such as Proposition 15, we can generate resources to promote safe and equitable access to schooling, while ensuring school-based workers can fulfill their jobs without compromising their health.   

Investment in California schools would make possible the measures already taken by better-resourced schools: environmental controls such as redesigning classrooms and upgrading ventilation systems, administrative controls such as reduced class sizes, staggered schedules and distancing on school buses, and adequate PPE, including N95 masks.   

Strengthening health department capacity would ensure prompt testing and contact tracing of students and staff, part of the strategy of open private schools, and it could improve surveillance through wastewater monitoring or pooled testing. By controlling infection in the community, we further protect students and staff in schools, and vice versa.  

While the decision of the moment may seem to be between schools reopening or staying online, the more important choice is the one we face on Election Day between political representatives and policies that will invest in public education and public health or those that will deny it.   

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