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By Miriam Raftery

July 21, 2020 (San Diego)  - Should you send your child back to school this fall, if facilities are allowed to open? How much risk does in-school learning pose for children, teachers, staff and families amid the COVID-19 pandemic? Is distance-only learning really an acceptable substittute for in-person instruction?

These are questions every parent and educator is now confronting. A look at childcare facilities, which have remained open throughout the pandemic, as well as checking up on schools around the world in places that have reopened, can provide some lessons learned.

As of today, 90 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in child care facilities in San Diego, according to data updated daily by the California Department of Social Services. Statewide, the number of coronavirus cases reported by childcare facilities rose five-fold in just over a month, Ed Source reported last week. 

Locally, only 11 cases have been in children; the rest were staff, parents or other adults dropping off children at centers. Just one has resulted in an outbreak of three or more cases at one facility, so it’s likely that many or most of those sickened contracted the virus elsewhere. 

San Diego County has 3,837 total licensed childcare facilities, including 682 centers and 2,155 family childcare locations. The centers care for children ranging in age from infants to age 12. 

This includes some summer day camps, such as a summer enrichment program run by Cajon Valley Union School District. While Governor Gavin Newsom has prohibited schools from reopening until a county is off the state watch list for at least two weeks, “The Governor’s order does not apply to day camps or daycare,” Music Watson, chief of staff at the San Diego County Office of Education confirmed.

As more businesses reopen and parents return to work, the need for childcare is on the rise. Yet KPBS has reported a shortage of childcare availability, due in part to social distancing and group size limits in some areas that have made it hard for centers to stay viable economically.

Statewide, only 2% of all childcare centers have reported cases of COVID-19. Still, there may be cause for concern. From early June to mid-July, according to EdSource, the increase in childcare centers reopened rose only 14%, but the number of cases soared by 394%. However that may simply reflect the rise in cases statewide across communities.

The potential for transmission exists despite state and county health and sanitation guidelines, which include urging childcare providers to keep groups as small as possible, with the same adult whenever feasible and providing for social distancing.

Masks are required for children ages 2 and up, however maintaining social distancing among active youngsters can be challenging.  A photo sent in by an ECM reader showed youngsters at one childcare site in Santee that appeared to lack social distancing.  Children are also less apt than adults to remember to cover their mouths and nose if they sneeze or cough, and may hug or touch each other, even taunting each other, despite the rules.

The good news is that even in areas that were COVID-19 hotspots, where childcare centers remained open for essential workers or others, the number of identified cases have been surprisingly small. NPR reported on June 24 that in New York, where the YMCA and the city’s Department of Education cared for tens of thousands of children since mid-March; both report zero clusters or outbreaks. 

A separate, unscientific survey of child care centers by Brown University economist Emily Oster found that of 916 centers with over 20,000 children, just over 1% of staff and 0.16% of children were confirmed infected with COVID-19.

As school districts debate whether – or how – to reopen this fall, many educators and parents might take heart in the daycare experience and hope the low rates of COVID in daycare centers will carry over among school children.

A cautionary note, however, may be found in Israel. After reopening schools, the Israeli Health Ministry reported that between July 10 and 16, over a third of all COVID-19 patients in the nation contracted the virus in schools. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “Rushing to get kids back into the classroom this spring was one of the reasons infection rates skyrocketed in Israel – offering a teaching moment to the world.”

Science Magazine recently examined trends around the world in places where schools have reopened and found some encouraging trends. The authors looked at a range of schools, some that required masks, others that didn’t, as well as schools utilizing a variety of social distancing, barriers, and other means of protecting youngsters.

The article concludes, “Together, they suggest a combination of keeping student groups small and requiring masks and some social distancing helps keep schools and communities safe, and that younger children rarely spread the virus to one another or bring it home. But opening safely, experts agree, isn’t just about the adjustments a school makes. It’s also about how much virus is circulating in the community, which affects the likelihood that students and staff will bring COVID-19 into their classrooms.”

While children have generally seemed less apt to contract COVID-19 than adults and less apt to have serious cases, they can be asymptomatic carriers, a concern for households with elderly adults or individuals of any age with underlying health conditions.

An emerging concern is Multi-system Inflammatory Concern (MSIC), a rare but serious condition that has occurred in some children with COVID-19 that can cause organ damage or even death.

Yet cancelling school or relying on online-only classes long-term also has its own set of potentially negative consequences. The American Association of Pediatrics recently stated, "AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school. The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020.” 

Risks of remote learning  include children falling behind academically, particularly in low-income households that may lack technology or in homes where parents speak limited English, as is the case in many of East County’s immigrant and refugee households. There may be psychological impacts, lack of socialization, and most troubling, children in abusive households may lack opportunities for intervention.

For school districts, challenges include weighing health and safety needs, parents’ who are eager for schools to reopen vs. others who want to avoid exposing children or family members to the virus,  worries among some teachers particularly those who are older or have health issues, against academic and other needs of the children. 

Educators are also grappling with uncertainties over whether in-person learning will be allowed at all. Currently, San Diego County remains on the state’s watch list for three categories, though county leaders are working to increase contact tracing and control the spread of the virus in hopes of transitioning off that list before the fall semester fast approaching.

“Our first day of school for the 20-21 school year is August 19th,” Tamara Otero, president of the Cajon Valley Union School District, told ECM.  “After spending time and resources in preparation for the return of students this is incredibly frustrating.  Our Plan for next year was approved in June with a 4-1 vote of the Board, in order for us to have the time necessary to prepare and plan for Fall 2020.”

The district’s plan offers four options for families to choose from in order for them to stay within their comfort level. Otero notes, “We understand and appreciate that many families are living with older family members or those who are immune compromised and we have offered them the option of 100% distance learning, or Home School.   We know that many of our teachers aren’t comfortable returning to the classroom as before and we will support them with options to teach distance learning.” She cites the American Association of Pediatrics finding that, “The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020.”  

Although the situation is challenging, she concludes, “We have been working hard to meet the needs of our students and families so we are prepared.  Rather than waiting (without action) for direction, we have worked all summer in preparation for whatever challenges may present, in order to offer our students options.  We will continue to plan with our goal in mind of providing a space for `happy kids, in healthy relationships, on a path to gainful employment.’”

(Photo credit (L): Rebecca Jefferis Williamson

Miriam Raftery, editor and founder of East County Magazine, has over 35 years of journalism experience. She has won more than 350 journalism awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, San Diego Press Club, and the American Society of Journalists & Authors. Her honors include the Sol Price Award for responsible journalism and three James Julian awards for public interest reporting from SPJ’s San Diego chapter. She has received top honors for investigative journalism, multicultural reporting, coverage of immigrant and refugee issues, politics, breaking news and more. Thousands of her articles have appeared in national and regional publications.

East County Magazine gratefully acknowledges the Facebook Journalism Project for its COVID-19 Relief Fund grant to support our local news reporting including impacts on vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more: #FacebookJournalismProject and

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