SANTA ROSA (CBS SF) – Bay Area health officers said Friday that they back plans for schools to return to full-time in-person learning this fall, amid continuing COVID-19 case drops and rising vaccination rates.

“The lack of in-person learning has disrupted education, weakened the social supports provided by school communities, negatively impacted mental health, and prevented participation in the rituals and shared milestones that tie our communities together,” said a joint statement from the health officers in the nine Bay Area counties, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, and the city of Berkeley.

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Officials said “the science is now clear” that the risk of COVID-19 transmission is very low among children wearing masks, even with reduced spacing. The officials also said the risk of classroom transmission was low to begin with and has decreased even further as case rates have fallen.

Health officials also cited high vaccination rates and the availability of vaccines for children 12 and older.

“It is time to move past the remote-learning model and return to the full range of learning and support that our educational communities provide,” said Sonoma County health officer Dr. Sundari Mase on behalf of the other officers.

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After classes were moved online at the start of the pandemic in March of 2020, the road to returning children to classrooms has proven to be long in much of the region.

In February, following the peak of the winter surge, only districts in Marin County, Napa County and a handful of communities in the rest of the Bay Area were offering in-person learning.

Map of Bay Area public elementary school districts on their reopening status as of February 12, 2021. Yellow indicates distance learning, light blue indicates hybrid learning and dark blue indicates in-person learning. (State of California)

Map of Bay Area public elementary school districts on their reopening status as of February 12, 2021. Yellow indicates distance learning, light blue indicates hybrid learning and dark blue indicates in-person learning. (State of California)

The pace of reopening classrooms eventually prompted rallies and became the subject of a lawsuit in San Francisco.

While many Bay Area districts began resuming in-person learning in March and April, some students will finish the school year under distance learning, including most middle and high school students in the San Francisco Unified School District.

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The Fremont Unified School District, which serves about 35,000 students, also remains under distance learning until the end of the school year after agreements could not be reached with teachers.