California's two largest school districts, Los Angeles and San Diego, reported on Monday that classes would remain online-only in the fall, signaling an increase in coronavirus cases that could impact both teachers and children.
"There is a public health imperative to keep classes from becoming a petri dish," announced Austin Beutner, the Los Angeles school superintendent, whose county is home to over a third of the state's coronavirus cases.
The announcement comes in the midst of a surge in cases and deaths involving coronavirus that forced school districts across California to re-evaluate plans for in-person classes. Decisions are taken at the local level on reopening California schools, a function that has created a patchwork of proposals – including online or in-person teaching, or a combination of the two.
But even as the largest school districts in southern California toggle back reopening plans, educational officials in neighboring Orange County, which has emerged as a seat of organized resistance to mandatory mask orders, seem ready to buck the trend.
Orange county education officials are expected to suggest this week that schools offer autumn in-person training without requiring students to wear face masks, or that schools reduce class sizes to allow physical distance. The recommendations come from a committee of panelists including health officials, and was contained in a study commissioned by the school board on how to reopen schools.
"It is not only difficult - if not impossible - to force children to wear masks during school, but not based on science. It can even be dangerous," the study reads, suggesting that wearing masks could lead to behavioral issues.
The study widely suggests that the detrimental consequences of keeping children out of school will outweigh the health risks for children, who so far have been largely shielded from the virus's most severe health impacts.
"When Covid-19 spreads, children play a very minor role," the report said. "The risk of infection from other people, including parents, is greater for teachers and staff than for students in their classrooms."
Although the study shares some parallels with guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics ( AAP) – which said so far little evidence indicates that children play a major role in Covid-19 transmission – the guidelines from AAP emphasized the value of face coverings.
"Evidence keeps mounting on the importance of universal face coverings in interrupting SARS-CoV-2 spread," it read.
The Orange county study also argued that masks may be harmful to child development, arguing: "Mandatory masks may well lead to an increase in problems of childhood behavior such as learning disabilities, anxiety disorders, and depression, to name but a few."
Mark Reinecke, the Child Mind Institute's clinical director and senior clinical psychologist, said the argument was unsupported. "I am not aware of any research or evidence that wearing masks will lead to the onset of a depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, or children's learning disability," Reinecke said.
CDC advice also recommends that when children are in public environments and unable to maintain physical distance, they wear a face mask, and that contact with other children should be limited. "Children will pass on this virus to others who are at elevated risk of Covid-19 serious illness," reads the CDC website.
Last week the California Teachers Association (CTA) sent a letter to the Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, stating that not all schools were equipped with resources to ensure a healthy reopening of schools.
"Since schools closed in March, CTA has said that our students and educators' health and safety must always be our top priority and guiding principle in the course of this crisis," CTA leaders said in the letter.
The debate is continuing at the national level, with US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, saying over the weekend that "the law will be for children to go back to school this fall," citing remarks from the American Academy of Pediatrics research.
However, the California Teachers Association in its letter to the governor pointed to rising levels of infection that have made it clear that California has yet to control its surge.
"California clearly said it can not reopen schools unless they are safe," CTA said.