School districts in the state of California are struggling to decide whether to reopen their classrooms to in-person learning as public health experts warn that the coronavirus may pose a high risk to the returning students.

Politics rather than science has frequently become the deciding factor in whether school districts should adopt a remote learning system or reopen their classrooms to in-person education. In recent months, local county health officials were left to make the decision. 

Counties rely on recent coronavirus data from health officials to guide their reopening plans. The data often includes case counts in the area and available bed spaces in local hospitals. However, counties are also subjected to pressure from the community and local unions, which holds a significant influence in the districts’ reopening decisions. 

The decision to reopen classrooms or keep schools closed now falls to each of the state’s 1,000 school districts, or private and charter schools. 

If they decide to reopen classrooms and have students come back to an in-person learning system, teachers, parents, children, and staffers may be infected with the novel coronavirus pandemic. Some could also die. 

This concern is more pressing now that counties across California state are seeing another surge of COVID-19 cases. The state government has also released new pandemic preventive measures to curb the spread of the virus. 

However, others worry that distance learning has led to academic, physical, emotional, and social setbacks among children and adults. The setbacks, they say, may take years to address. 

Experts also say the achievement gap between children is widening. Absenteeism—staying away from school and work for no reason—is also surging. The well-being of more than six million children is also at stake. 

A paper titled “Estimation of US Children’s Educational Attainment and Years of Life Lost Associated With Primary School Closures During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Pandemic” was published in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics this month. 

According to the researchers, school closures reduced the educational attainment and life expectancy among the youth. The recent lockdowns may have also led to a projected 5.53 million years of life lost in the country. 

Education leaders and public officials have called on California Governor Gavin Newsom to provide guidelines on class reopenings. The guidance would have to include specifics on how often teachers, staff members, and students should be tested for the novel coronavirus. 

Many are also urging the state government to release conditions they are required to meet to safely reopen. The qualifications would be based on local case rates and quantitative data. Schools and educational facilities that meet the conditions should be allowed to reopen.

However, as of Thursday, California has only released conditions for businesses, including hair salons and tattoo parlors. 

Schools located in areas placed under the state’s purple tier are still allowed to conduct in-person classes, despite the rising number of coronavirus cases. Dozens of private schools in the Bay Area have reopened in recent weeks. Public districts in the Central Valley and Tiburon have also reopened. A handful of schools in Palo Alto, Mill Valley, and Burlingame are expected to bring students back this month. 

Meanwhile, public school districts in San Francisco and Oakland refuse to reopen until after the winter break. 

In many places across the United States, including the Bay Area, bars and restaurants have resumed operations. These places are at a higher risk than schools and could potentially lead to devastating outbreaks and higher case counts. The risk increases pressure on schools to keep their doors closed and sparked an uproar on social media, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. 

In contrast, countries in Europe have reopened schools but kept bars, restaurants, and other establishments closed.