Illustration by Molly Oleson

A preponderance of scientific evidence tells us that all schools, K-12, can operate safely in the context of universal masking. Data from Mississippi tell us that youth attending in-person school are less likely to acquire COVID than students remaining at home. We also know that school closures have led to enormous academic loss, a mental health crisis among our youth, and a widening of inequities between the Latinx community and non-Hispanic whites. 

Given these findings, we now know that keeping our children in distance learning is less safe than sending students to school for traditional in-person learning. Yet California ranks dead last in the nation in providing access to in-person education: the majority of the state’s 6.2 million public school students remain partially or entirely in distance learning, even in large urban areas such as San Francisco that has the lowest COVID rate in the country. Governor Newsom’s seemingly infinite tolerance for shuttered schools has disproportionately harmed the Latinx community.

Because of a higher likelihood of being employed as essential workers and living in multigenerational households, Latinos and Latinas have been more affected by COVID than any other demographic group in California. While Latinxs make up 39 percent of California’s population, they have accounted for 55 percent of all COVID cases and 46 percent of all COVID deaths. 

This disproportionate hardship was not inevitable. It was due to a slow and inadequate public-health response that failed to provide early, targeted messaging in Spanish about COVID risk and the importance of masking. While the Latinx population was more likely to continue working outside the home during California’s multiple lockdowns than their non-Hispanic white counterparts, they were put at higher risk of COVID infection, but received less messaging about prevention. 

Lack of in-person school has further compounded these inequalities. The children of essential workers have fewer hours of parental support to help navigate distance learning, causing a widening gap in academic opportunity and achievement along racial, ethnic and socio-economic lines. The situation worsens for English learners, who lack the much-needed teacher and peer support that in person school provides for language improvement. It is also probable that closed schools have increased COVID risks for their children, as unsupervised and thus higher-risk social interactions take place when students are not in school.    

Similar to local and state campaigns using trusted messengers to overcome vaccine hesitancy among specific communities, we urgently need effective engagement and communication around the safety of school reopening in both English and Spanish. Further, we need to directly communicate that Latinxs are not more susceptible to COVID but that they have been more exposed to COVID, and that Latinx children, like all other children, are safer in school, where universal masking can be enforced and is highly effective at stopping COVID spread. 

Latinx children have been largely abandoned by California’s governor. State and district teachers’ unions have argued that it is somehow equitable to keep schools closed because of lingering fear of return among some families. Rather than characterizing access to in-person education as critical for social equity, Newsom has remained largely silent.  These are distorted references to equity and only insure an inferior education for already disadvantaged communities. 

Governor Newsom has refused to mandate school reopening, even for next fall. Moreover,  he has failed to launch a statewide campaign that conveys how children and youth are safe in school while emphasizing the physical, emotional, and mental health harms to children by remaining in distance learning. This is especially needed for Latinx families who have shouldered a disproportionate burden of illness and suffering during the COVID pandemic and deserve messages of reassurance, especially given the strong narrative of fear put forth by leaders of local and state teachers’ unions. 

This lack of a coherent state policy continues to condemn Latinx children to inferior education, growing disparities, and prolonged social isolation. 

Dr. Jeanne Noble is an associate professor of emergency medicine and director of COVID Response, UCSF Emergency Dept.

Mara Kolesas, Ph.D. Professor at Fromm Institute, USF, former Berkeley PTA Council president and member of Open Schools Berkeley. @marakole

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  1. Like many SFUSD educators, I am DELIGHTED to be working with children again after more than a year of distance learning.
    Parents who say their children suffered emotional damage and lost ground academically are correct: It may take time for some students to recover from everything that happened this year. Observing multiple poor outcomes for distance learning, it was frustrating to watch from the sidelines as district leadership posted vague progress reports.
    Still, I do know people in other school systems that caught COVID from students and got very sick. I see how challenging it is to make the schools safe: my school has no HEPA filtration system, yet our students eat in their classrooms with masks off. I am glad we didn’t reopen when SF was in the purple zone and staff was unvaccinated.

  2. @Sharyn: it would be helpful for you to explain your own analysis of the Mississippi data. Per this study, the only factor predicting a negative COVID test was having attended in-person school in past 14 days (adjusted odds ratio, figure 1). In contrast, having attended social gatherings, such as playdates, was positively associated with +COVID test.

    For additional data on school safety, please review following well regarded studies:

    1. I’m not exactly sure why it’s incumbent on me to explain myself further or provide a detailed “analysis” of a CDC study, particularly since your co-author seems to take such a dismissive view of my opinions. As authors of the op-ed, I think it’s up to you and Dr. Kolesas to persuade the audience/community of your views, and I think I’ve already noted at length why I am not persuaded as to certain statements in your piece. I may not have a MD/Ph.D but I do read pretty well and your characterization of the CDC’s findings — that “youth attending in-person school are less likely to acquire COVID than students remaining at home” and “keeping our children in distance learning is less safe than sending students to school for traditional in-person learning” — does not seem to line up with the CDC’s executive summary, both as to “What is added by this report?” and “What are the implications for public health practice?” Moreover, in your comments above, it seems you are muddling the issues a bit and assuming that children who are not at school in-person are necessarily exposed to other risk factors described in the study — such as social gatherings, playdates, close contact with COVID+ individual. I don’t think that’s always the case and the CDC study did not seem to suggest that either. Perhaps I am oversimplifying issues in my reading of the report and analyzing your choice of words a bit too closely. However, I saw that you published another op-ed in the LA Times a few weeks ago (late March) and in that op-ed, you described the CDC Mississippi study and several others quite differently –noting the significance of masking and social interactions (as opposed to just “staying at home”). I’m not sure why those same distinctions were not made in this piece. In addition, in the LA Times op-ed, you argued that “schools can operate safely in grades K-12” — which does seem to be supported by the Mississippi study (and others) at a high level. However, in this Mission Local piece you take your argument a (significant) step further by saying that the Mississippi study (“science”) proves distance learning is “less safe” than in-person school (i.e., kids who stay at home are “more likely” to contract COVID than those who attend school in person). I think that is a materially different argument than the one you made in your LA Times op-ed, and one that does not appear to be supported by the single CDC study you cited. But again, I’m not an expert — just a member of the community who your co-author thinks is “pretending to be informed” on these matters. So if my analysis is off base, it shouldn’t matter.

  3. The issue of school re-opening is not one of cranky parents or those with certain income. It’s an imperative for ALL children. If schooling was not important we’d not have schools, period.
    The data here is scant because this is an opinion piece and not a scholarly article in a research journal. Dr. Noble is well respected in her field and an authority on this topic.
    Thanks to the last comment from another SFUSD Latino parent. Yes, we should return. It’s way overdue.

    1. If the article simply stated the author’s opinions, I’d have less of an issue with it. But the authors purport to be “experts” in this area and make several factual assertions which lack evidentiary support and/or completely misrepresent the facts. For example:

      1. “Data from Mississippi tell us that youth attending in-person school are less likely to acquire COVID than students remaining at home.” This statement completely misrepresents the findings of the study that is cited.

      2. “Given these findings, we now know that keeping our children in distance learning is less safe than sending students to school for traditional in-person learning.” The authors are saying we “now know” that distance learning is “less safe” (statement of fact, not opinion) — but cite no evidence other than the Mississippi study that they have mischaracterized.

      If this letter stated the opinions of a parent/group of parents in the community, that’d be one thing. But these two professors are professing to be experts in this area — if they are, then they should know better than to misrepresent the findings of a CDC study and to make other statements about distance learning being “less safe” without any other factual or evidentiary support, especially given their academic background. I also question both authors’ expertise in the area of public school policy and administration. Dr. Noble is a professor of medicine — not public policy or education; she also does not appear to have any meaningful experience with public schools on a professional or personal level. Dr. Kolesas is a professor of political theory, not public policy or education.

      I understand there are differing views/opinions about school re-openings and those views can certainly be expressed via community letter/op-eds. But this letter takes things a step further by making factual statements that are simply not true or supported.

    2. Gracias Alejandra. It is indeed an opinion piece, yet based not only on current research, but also on historical trends and patterns of discrimination. Also, it has an implicit comparison with other developed countries (in Europe), where the ultimate priority and public good is public education and caring for the wellbeing of children.
      And last, I am honored to co-author this piece with Dr. Jeanne Noble, a medical and moral authority.

  4. Thank you Mission Local for this coverage. Latino families are in the majority desiring for all schools to reopen according to the last SFUSD school survey results. We face many challenges. Unfortunately, teachers have demonized and thrown working families under the bus. Had we figured out a way to return together creatively and safely we would be more in solidarity. I don’t know why they have chosen to isolate themselves. The City, our regional COVID response team at UCSF, families of all class and race are all behind the reopening of schools (SFUSD results)…. instead their misguided union leadership has led them to this awful isolation. They do not have the backing of a group of scientists or epidemiologists. We are in the orange tier… we should return.

    1. Thank you for this comment and the reality check. It is unbelievable that we need to fight so badly for such a basic right, for children and working families.

  5. Small point perhaps but why do you refer to “Latinos” in contrast to non-Hispanic whites?

    Who not compare Hispanics to non-Hispanic whites? Or Latinos to non-Latino whites? Why mix the terms?

    “Latino” and “Hispanics” are almost interchangeable terms, but technically Brazilians are not Hispanic, although nobody cares.

    1. Yes. To non-Hispanic Whites. We are using them as interchangeable terms, given that the Census Bureau agreed on Hispanics as ethnicity (not race) and sociologically they are used along, together with LatinXs.

  6. Great, Latinx workers were given some food and a test and told to return to their crowded homes and go back to work without protection. For a whole year during a deadly pandemic.

    Now, cranky parents who can’t stand another moment together with their precious offspring demand that the state sit their babies, and would twist the injustices imposed on our neighbors to claim that protecting kids by keeping schools closed is somehow unjust, because Mississippi, which would dispatching children of dispensable Latinx workers to a Truckee High School fate.

    This will be over soon enough. Use it as a learning experience to teach your children patience.

    1. Both on news sites like Mission Local and Twitter men are the most frequent commentators against school reopening, the number one harassers of parents advocating for reopening, and the least affected of anyone. I think in the reason many of them even take a side on this issue has more to do with the patriarchy than with anything else. Example above.

      1. This letter — written by two professors with advanced degrees — does not cite any facts, statistics, or actual evidence to support its bold thesis that “[W]e now know that keeping our children in distance learning is less safe than sending students to school for traditional in-person learning.” The one study cited (related to Mississippi) pertains to the source of Covid among children who tested positive (i.e., community transmission vs. in school transmission), not whether distance learning is safer than in-person learning. In other words, the study does not support the authors’ main thesis.
        As professors/academics, the co-authors should know better, yet they both have a pattern of misstating and misrepresenting facts, and/or selectively using or twisting data to support their assertions (via Twitter, other statements they have made). It’s troubling to see professors at two respected institutions (UCSF and USF) engage in this conduct.

        1. Do your work and look for articles. There are plenty. There is also data about disengagement from zoom, not submitting school work (that districts are not releasing in full or systematically), immense psychological harm (lack of motivation, isolation, self-esteem issues all the way to depression, anxiety, suicide ideation – there are plenty of data in hospitals, do your work), and increasing disparities. Since you are a Berkeley person, and pretend to be so informed, even though you haven;t put together any argument, just responding negatively to the position of reopening schools, look at the Board Meeting on Jan 21 where they present the results of STAR tests by demographic groups. DISMAY.
          Public education is in person.
          You take your personal opinion and make it what it should be for everybody, against science and data. If you do not want to return to school, don’t. Homeschool your kids. But do not go against the collective rights of others, particularly the most disadvantage groups.

          1. Dr. Kolesas, you’re citing a bunch of issues (disengagement from zoom, etc) that are not discussed/mentioned in the CDC study you cited — none of which pertain to COVID safety, which was the focus of CDC study. I am actually quite informed and agree with you and others that in-person is generally a more effective way for students to learn and that there are mental health benefits to in-person learning/interaction. I’m also not opposed to schools re-opening, but am not convinced it’s safe to fully reopen all schools, particularly those with dense populations like urban middle/high schools (with 100’s, possibly 1000’s, of kids on a small campus). This is very complex issue, and I think open schools proponents have a tendency to oversimplify issues or overstate (and in some cases, misstate) facts. In this case, I think several of the assertions you make in the letter about kids staying at home/distance learning being “less safe” (i.e., more likely to contract COVID) than kids who attend in-person school do not appear consistent with the CDC’s own summary of findings in its Mississippi study — it’s one thing to say it’s safe to attend school, but you go a step further and say it’s actually less safe to stay at home. But, if you want to get angry and hurl insults at me (e.g., “pretend to be informed”) because I have the audacity to disagree with you, raise questions, and note instances in which you have misstated facts in the past (e.g., the status and extent of school reopenings in various districts in CA), that is your prerogative.

    2. I’m one of the parents who have been advocating for a return to in-person school since the beginning of this year. I don’t need someone to babysit my kid. I need someone to teach my kid, and you cannot effectively teach lower elementary remotely. Remote school does not work for most kids and most families. If you have not been trying to help a child learn remotely during this pandemic, your opinion on the matter isn’t really needed.