The empty Miguel Contreras Learning Complex in Los Angeles in March.
Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

California’s two most populous counties have weighed in on the unprecedented dilemma facing school systems throughout the country: the superintendents for Los Angeles and San Diego counties announced on Monday that their students would not return to the classroom next month. The districts, which include a total of around 825,000 students, are the largest so far in the nation to choose to remain online only for the beginning of the school year.

Educators and politicians are facing an impossible choice on school closings, considering the health of students and teachers paired with the educational and social needs of children and the ability for parents to work. In Southern California, the immediate public-health emergency appears to have overridden other considerations. Over a third of California’s 60,000 new coronavirus cases over the past week are in Los Angeles County, while in San Diego County, there have been more than 18 community outbreaks in the past week — double the level considered acceptable by the state. “There’s a public-health imperative to keep schools from becoming a petri dish,” said Los Angeles school superintendent Austin Beutner.

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As the Trump administration pushes for a full return for students, the country’s largest school districts will likely set the true course of action. Los Angeles Unified — the second-largest district with around 700,000 students — and San Diego Unified, with over 100,000 students, could determine how states with ongoing outbreaks handle the campus question. Meanwhile, New York City, where the positive-testing rate hovers around one percent, is opting for a hybrid model in which students attend school two to three days per week to reduce classroom capacity and risk of exposure. Seattle public schools will follow a similar model for in-person education, and Miami-Dade County is considering the same — despite a statewide order for “brick and mortar” schools to reopen next month.

With cases continuing to spike in California, Governor Gavin Newsom also announced on Monday that bars must close all operations, while restaurants, wineries, movie theaters, and museums must close indoor operations statewide — the most substantial rollback of activity in this summer’s renewed surge of cases.

Los Angeles and San Diego Schools Will Begin the Year Online