Protecting the safety and wellbeing of California's children throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been a top priority of the Newsom Administration. The benefits of in-person instruction are plain to see, especially for our youngest students and students disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Now, with growing evidence that the right precautions can effectively stop the spread of COVID-19 in schools—particularly in elementary grades—the Administration is committed to doing everything it can to support students and staff to safely return to in-person instruction.
We have learned a great deal since the beginning of the pandemic, and both national and international studies demonstrate the relatively low risks and high benefits of educating students in classrooms—especially for elementary grades.
With the Right Precautions, We Can Minimize Transmissions in Schools—Especially in Elementary Grades
Research across the globe shows that children get COVID-19 less often than adults, and when they do get sick, they get less sick than adults. Population-wide studies in Italy and Spain using antibody tests, which indicate whether a person has been infected at any point previously, find that children have lower rates of infection compared to adults.
In studies of open schools in America and around the world, children do not seem to be major sources of transmission—either to each other or to adults. In fact, the greatest risk in school settings comes from adults transmitting it to other adults, often in settings like breakrooms where we sometimes let down our guard. One study in Australia of 10 early childhood centers and 15 schools (>6000 people) found low rates in the schools overall (1.2%), and an adult-to-adult transmission rate almost 15 times higher than child-to-child transmission.
The growing body of evidence is particularly strong for lower risks associated with elementary schools. For example, a study analyzing elementary schools in a heavily impacted region of France found that the risks of transmission inside schools were approximately the same as outside schools. The lower risks associated with younger grades is likely due to, among other reasons, the fact that younger people produce fewer ACE-2 receptors—COVID's doorway into human cells.
Even in communities with many COVID cases, we do not see many outbreaks in schools. That's because the right precautions can stop outbreaks before they start. Evidence shows that schools with the right mitigation strategies have been able to prevent in-school transmission among students and staff.
We know what works. We can stop the spread in schools by layering and carefully implementing mitigation strategies, including masks, cohorting, proper ventilation, washing hands, testing and symptom screening.
For more information, please refer to Evidence Summary: TK-6 Schools and COVID-19 Transmission (California Department of Public Health)
In-Person Instruction Is Critical for Learning and Growth—Especially in Elementary Grades
While California has made great strides in distance learning—and this option will remain for parents and students who choose it and for those whose health status does not allow them to return to school in the near term—remote learning is still very challenging for many students and their caregivers. In a recent survey by the Alliance for Children's Rights, 42% of caregivers reported that they are not comfortable supporting youth in their care with technology needs, and 39% of caregivers reported that they are not comfortable providing academic support to the youth in their care during distance learning.
Older students are better equipped to manage technology and benefit from distance learning, but younger students—especially TK-2—are less equipped. Furthermore, the social-emotional skills cultivated in the youngest grades are foundational for future wellbeing. In the classroom, students learn not only academic skills, but social and emotional skills as well. In a classroom of peers led by an expert teacher, students learn to listen and focus, to share, to wait their turn, to encourage others and to allow others to encourage them. They also begin to learn skills such as self-awareness, social awareness, self-management and responsible decision-making that will carry them through life.
There are also immediate health-related benefits for children who are provided in-person instruction, including lower rates of anxiety and depression, higher rates of immunizations, and other positive indicators of public health and wellbeing. These benefits are particularly critical for foster youth, homeless youth, and other students disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, for whom school provides safety and stability. In-person instruction also helps school staff to detect and address child abuse and neglect. For example, the state observed a roughly 40% drop in child welfare referrals following the stay-at-home orders in March 2020 compared to spring averages from the prior year.
Through careful implementation of safety measures and by phasing in our youngest students—who are at lowest risk and stand to benefit the most from in-person settings—we can build experience, confidence, and trust that our schools can be both safe workplaces and safe learning environments.