In a united display of support for in-person learning, health officers from across the Bay Area gathered Thursday in San Francisco to call for schools to fully reopen this fall.
Speaking on the steps of Everett Middle School in San Francisco, 10 health officials said the risk of COVID-19 transmission among masked children is low and the switch to virtual instruction during the pandemic negatively affected not only students’ learning but their mental health and sense of community.
“The cost to our kids by keeping them out of school and remote learning is immense and far outweighs any benefit,” said Scott Morrow, San Mateo County’s health officer.
During the pandemic, Morrow said, health officers have seen a significant increase in anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide ideation, substance abuse and other conditions.
School, echoed Contra Costa County Health Officer Chris Farnitano, is where children meet friends and learn about life, not only in the classroom, but in cafeterias and on sports fields.
“Schools are not just places for academic learning,” Farnitano said. “They are important for children’s social learning as well.”
Thursday was the first time health officers from across the Bay Area have gathered since announcing the nation’s earliest shelter-in-place order last March.
Since then, acknowledged Sara Cody, Santa Clara County’s health officer, they have approached the pandemic in different ways. But on in-person school, she said, “we are 100% united.”
State officials, Farnitano said, are “very committed to full in-person learning,” and the health officers have been working with them. And a waiver to allow distance learning is already set to expire later this month. But some parents and teachers, worried about the coronavirus spreading at schools, have pushed for continued remote education in the fall.
With adults and older students vaccinated, and measures like masking and potentially social distancing in place for students who are too young to be inoculated, the health officers said, that’s not necessary.
In Marin County, with 3 million student days across 110 open schools, said Health Officer Matt Willis, there are no occasions where a student has infected an adult, and kids are more likely to be infected in the community outside of school.
When schools do move forward with reopening, it remains unclear exactly what will and will not be permitted. Willis said it would be up to school leadership, working with local health officials, to determine the risk for different activities like football games, school dances and band practice.
Whether and how long students must quarantine, he said, will depend on the nature of their exposure to the disease. Officials will still use testing and contact tracing to track outbreaks, and the health officers said they have plans in place to deal with cases at schools.
“It’s time to move past the remote-learning model,” said San Francisco Health Officer Susan Philip. “Students can safely return to school.”