By Dawniel Carlock Stewart and Lisa Delano-Wood
Everyone wants schools to resume pre-pandemic operations as soon as possible. But it would be a mistake for the 122,000-student San Diego Unified School District to fully reopen its classrooms and campuses without absolute reliance upon a scientifically informed approach that includes comprehensive testing and strong mitigation factors, such as universal mask wearing and social distancing.
The need has never been more acute. Flu season is here; it will complicate and exacerbate existing public health challenges. We strongly urge caution going forward. The SDUSD Board of Education must scrupulously adhere to the best and latest expert scientific guidance, including advice it solicited in August from public health and infectious disease experts at UC San Diego.
When SDUSD officials shut down schools in mid-March, the action helped tamp down COVID-19 case numbers and prevented outbreaks in the spring and summer. But many districts and schools have since reopened their doors and classrooms; COVID-19 case numbers in San Diego County are correspondingly rising. Our community is now more vulnerable than it was in March. All predictive models of COVID-19 over the next four to six months project surges in infections and deaths.
We all want a return to normalcy, but it cannot be rushed. It cannot be done right now. Successfully reopening schools is only possible when COVID-19 case rates are sufficiently low; when testing is easily accessible, widespread and produces actionable results within 24 hours; and when contact tracing can be quickly and effectively deployed to control viral spread. At the moment, none of these criteria have been achieved.
Until they are, fully reopening the state’s second largest school district is only likely to sharply boost the chances of subsequent shutdowns, not just schools but businesses too as more San Diegans become infected, sick and die — all unnecessarily.
No one is immune from the virus. Age is a risk factor, but more than 657,000 children in the United States have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Thankfully, serious illness and death due to COVID-19 are uncommon in children, but we now know that they are efficient spreaders of this virus, passing it along (often asymptomatically) to family members, friends, teachers and others.
A recent JAMA Pediatrics study found that children carry as much virus in their nasal passages as adults; children under 5 years old may carry a 10 to 100 times greater viral load than adults. Public health scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and in Salt Lake City found that children who contracted COVID-19 in childcare facilities transmitted the virus to more than one-quarter of their outside contacts. Growing data indicates high levels of community transmission directly translate into increased infection rates among children.
We need to put in place those measures that will fundamentally curb the relentless and perhaps exponential spread of COVID-19. Until we do so, we cannot reasonably protect ourselves, our children, their teachers, school staff, families at home and the community at large.
No one argues that in-person instruction isn’t the desired goal. Online learning is difficult for everyone involved, and no substitute for classroom learning. But we cannot rush pell-mell, just because the current situation is so fraught and frustrating. Doing so is not in the best interests of our children, and it places countless others at risk.
We must learn from lessons elsewhere. When Israel broadly and prematurely reopened its schools, a massive resurgence of infections swept the country. One month after reopening its schools, public health officials in Israel estimated half of the country’s new infections derived from school-based sources.
Locally, we have already seen several classrooms and schools suddenly close due to positive tests, often just days after reopening. Even private schools have been affected. These closures are disruptive. They create further confusion, fear and anxiety. They do not lead to a stable, consistent educational environment.
We can and must learn from the mistakes of others. SDUSD should set an example of best practices and rigorous criteria that underscores its unwavering commitment to the health and protection of its students, teachers, staff and community. Please join us in protecting public health by signing our change.org petition.
Dawniel Carlock Stewart is a doula and lactation/childbirth educator. Lisa Delano-Wood, PhD, is an associate professor of psychiatry at University of California San Diego School of Medicine. Both are members of San Diegans for Science-Based School Re-Openings, which can be contacted at SD4SaferSchoolReopening@gmail.com