ONLY Fully Reopen Schools When Scientifically Safe

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We strongly urge San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) to fully reopen schools when it can be safely done using an informed, science-based approach. 

All predictive models from national and international scientific experts who study COVID-19 clearly show expected exponential surges in infections and deaths, particularly over the next 6 months. Especially as we are entering flu season, we urge you to please follow the expert scientific guidance recently received by an expert panel of 9 public health and infectious disease experts from the University of California San Diego (UCSD) with regard to when and how to return, as outlined in detail here, per SDUSD.

SDUSD has already initiated Phase 1, which is a return to in-person school for students with high need who are not progressing due to online learning. This is a safe, scientifically-supported reopening. We urge the district to continue reopening in this science-supported way, with phases for reopening based on the metrics outlined in the link above. We are asking that Phase 2 is ONLY initiated when the science-based metrics are transparently met, including adequate testing/contact tracing and low community transmission rates.

A return to normalcy is preferred by all citizens of San Diego. At this time, we are not in a position to do so safely yet. Other countries that were able to fully reopen schools had very low COVID-19 case rates, adequate testing capacity, as well as contact tracing that helped control the virus from the outset. Most experts agree that neither is the case for San Diego County, CA. Fully reopening our large, underfunded school district now (when we are in the Red Zone, on the verge of Purple) will cause an exponential rise in spread and sharply increase the likelihood of a subsequent full shutdown in San Diego. This will negatively affect our children, local businesses, and increase unnecessary deaths of our fellow San Diegans.

Locally, we have already seen a new spike in COVID-19 cases in young children and teens, and in just the last two weeks, 125 of those who tested positive were exposed at school. This week, just two days after opening, Vista Unified had to revert back to virtual learning following COVID exposures on campus. In a newly published medical study looking at 131 countries, community transmission increased by 24% within 28 days of children returning to classrooms. And throughout San Diego County, in both public and private schools that have partially reopened schools, most have had classes quarantining due to COVID exposures. These children are unfortunately having to pivot to virtual learning after just starting in-person learning, as well as experiencing increased anxiety at knowing they've been exposed to COVID. This is not a stable, consistent educational environment. We can learn from the mistakes of others and not repeat them. SDUSD can set its own standards and represent a best practice example for other districts in the way that it prioritizes the protection of its students, teachers, staff, and larger communities.

The largest contact tracing study to date have concluded that children are efficient spreaders for COVID, and in some instances, can be "superspreaders." Because children tend to be asymptomatic or have mild symptoms and thus do not get tested, children can efficiently spread COVID to their loved ones and others in the community without anyone knowing. Whereas, some children can go on to develop MIS-C, where their organs and tissues, such as the heart, lungs, blood vessels, kidneys, digestive system, brain, skin or eyes, become severely inflamed. Signs and symptoms depend on which areas of the body are affected. A study in JAMA Pediatrics showed that children carry as much virus in their nasal passages as adults; moreover, kids under 5 may carry 10 to 100 times more. Children do get infected and, in fact, more than 500,000 kids have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the US. Most of these infections have been in states undergoing surges, indicating that high levels of community transmission directly translates to increased infections among children. We need to protect our communities, stem the tide of infections, and work on putting in place measures that will help curb exponential spread of COVID-19 so that schools can safely reopen and the health of our kids--but also our teachers, staff and families at home--is protected as much as possible.

The following reopening criteria have been recommended by the UCSD panel of scientists and public health experts: 14-day case rate of <100/100,000; Fewer than 7 outbreaks over a 7-day period; a 7-day testing positivity rate of <8%; fewer than 10% increase in the average number of confirmed COVID-19 patients hospitalized; and availability of >20% of staffed ICU beds and of >25% of ventilators. More than 70% of investigations are initiated within 24 hours of notification of a positive case (also over a 7-day period), and contact tracers make a first contact attempt for more than 70% of close contacts of new positive cases within 24 hours of identification. 

In addition, the following mitigation strategies were recommended to optimize health and safety in order to suppress spread: adequate availability of virus testing (available to teachers and students every two weeks), wearing of face masks and use of other PPE, physical distancing, limited duration of close contact, symptom screening, enhanced physical environment (i.e., room ventilation, signage and physical barriers) and more attention focused on hygienic methods to control the spread of the virus. Additionally, viral tests (RNA/PCR) should be available to all members of the school community who are symptomatic, and rooms that do not have good natural ventilation and no MERV 13 in the HVAC system should be equipped with portable air cleaners. Furthermore, detailed disinfection plans should clearly outline cleaning protocols, frequency of cleaning, and approved disinfectants. Finally, a mandatory communication plan should be in place to inform the community, especially those within the affected schools as well as neighboring schools, regarding known positive and symptomatic cases.

We urge you to fully reopen schools when the science-based criteria as outlined in the above link are fully met. While we acknowledge that in-person instruction is desirable, we do not want to prematurely rush into fully reopening without sound safety conditions and detailed mitigation plans. This is not in the best interest of our children, and it places hundreds of thousands of vulnerable individuals in our San Diego community at risk. We should learn from what has unfolded elsewhere across the world, particularly in Israel where premature school reopenings led to a massive resurgence across the country. One school had a superspreader event which contributed to 154 students and 26 staff testing positive for COVID-19. Only a month after reopening, nearly 50% of Israel’s new infections were thought to have stemmed from schools. 

In closing, prematurely opening schools will lead to more of what we don’t want: Even more delays in ultimately keeping schools and businesses open in the long-term, as it will increase the disruptive frequency of the inevitable successive openings and closures that we will face as a County.

We support SDUSD's approach using science-based evidence when making decisions about how and when to re-open schools safely. Thank you for your support.