Catholic schools in California are taking appropriate measures against the threat of the new coronavirus and authorities should issue waivers to rules that bar the schools from reopening for “vital” in-person education, the California Catholic bishops have said, citing the low risk of coronavirus infection among children.
Their statement came as California broke its record for numbers of positive Covid-19 tests, 12,800.
“We understand that the threat of the coronavirus is real and ongoing in our state. And we understand the legitimate concerns that teachers, parents, and elected officials have about the safety of returning to the classrooms this fall,” the California Catholic Conference said July 22. “At the same time, we are deeply concerned about the broader health and development issues for our children if the state presumes to rely only on distance learning until a vaccine is developed.”
“In-person learning, especially at the lower grades, provides emotional and social skills and supports that are crucial to early childhood development and the overall well-being of children which simply cannot be replaced,” said the bishops.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom on July 17 announced requirements for resuming in-person instruction at all primary and secondary schools from transitional kindergarten to grade 12. In California, 33 of its 58 counties will begin with distance learning only. These are on a state “watch list” as judged by health officials monitoring elevated infection rates, increased hospitalizations, limited hospital capacity, or other troubling patterns, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Schools that do open must require masks for older children. Faculty and staff must wear masks and have access to consistent testing.
If students or educators test positive for coronavirus, their classroom would have to close and quarantine for 14 days. If a school’s student body and staff reach an infection rate of 5%, the school would have to close. A widespread outbreak in a school district would require a school shutdown, the Sacramento Bee reports.
Regarding limits on in-person education, the bishops asked the governor to speed the creation of regulations that would allow local authorities to grant waivers on a case-by-case basis at the local level.
“Our Catholic schools across the state have been diligently implementing the Centers for Disease Control guidance for schools and the recommendations of local health authorities in preparing to return to the classrooms,” the bishops said. “As many businesses, organizations, and government offices around the country are doing, we are making accommodations to adapt to the new realities caused by this pandemic.”
“The public-health science suggests that elementary-age students can return with low risk of infection or transmission of the virus among students or between students and teachers,” they continued. “So, we are urging Governor Newsom to continue the dialogue on this crucial question of how to reopen our schools safely.”
The bishops did not cite particular public health science experts.
Their language differs from CDC guidance, which says that the virus poses “relatively low risks” to children, compared to other ages. As of July 17, children and adolescents under 18 accounted for under 7% of COVID-19 cases and less than 0.1 percent of related deaths. In the U.S. there have been some 4 million confirmed coronavirus cases, with over 140,000 deaths.
About 80% of people infected with coronavirus recover without special treatment, but 20% require hospitalization, with the elderly or those with underlying health conditions facing higher risks. Some figures indicate about children make up about 1 percent of the total coronavirus hospitalizations. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, about 2% to 4% of children who contract coronavirus will be hospitalized. However, they make up extremely low figures of intensive care unit hospitalizations.
There are 64 known coronavirus deaths of children, less than the number of children who have died of influenza in each of the last five flu seasons. A rare condition called Multisystem inflammatory Syndrome in Children is believed to be linked to the virus, but only about 342 cases have been identified, including six deaths.
California added a record 12,800 confirmed coronavirus cases on July 21. It now has the most cumulative coronavirus cases of any U.S. state, having surpassed New York with over 430,000 cases. The state’s seven-day rolling average test rate is at about 7% positive, higher than the rate of 5% over 14 days that most epidemiologists consider necessary to re-open safely. Consistent testing failures could also under count the actual virus numbers, CBS Los Angeles reports.
California ranks as the most populous U.S. state, the third largest in area, and the eleventh in population density. Newsom said new California coronavirus numbers are not the highest per capita among states, but are “nonetheless, a sober reminder of why we are taking things as seriously as we are.”
The CDC has discussed reopening schools in several documents, including “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools This Fall,” updated on its website July 23.
Infections among younger school children and from student to teachers has been low, “especially if proper precautions are followed.” There are also few reports of children being the primary source of transmission among family members. Virus and antibody testing suggest children are “not the primary drivers” of the spread of the virus.
“No studies are conclusive, but the available evidence provides reason to believe that in-person schooling is in the best interest of students, particularly in the context of appropriate mitigation measures similar to those implemented at essential workplaces,” the CDC said.
In another July 23 document, “Preparing K-12 Administrators for Safe Return to School in Fall 2020,” the CDC said, “There is mixed evidence about whether returning to school results in increased transmission or outbreaks.”
California bishops stressed Catholic support and cooperation in efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19, including closing schools and suspending worship.
“We took these steps, not because the government issued orders, but because our God is love and he calls us to love for our neighbors,” they said. “That means working for the common good and protecting the sanctity and dignity of human life, taking special care for the poor and elderly, the sick and vulnerable.”
Like the CDC, the U.S. bishops stressed the importance of in-person education.
“What our children will lose by ‘virtual’ education — in terms of emotional development, skills and learning and achievement — will have a significant impact,” the bishops said. “In the name of protecting their health in the short-term, we may very likely be risking their long-term growth and potential.”