Citing the potential risks of sexual and physical abuse to children, San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan Monday urged Gov. Gavin Newsom to consider allowing county school districts to make their own determinations regarding reopening in advance of a Tuesday decision that could send the county to the most restrictive tier of the state's coronavirus reopening roadmap.
In a letter sent Monday to Newsom, Stephan said there has been "a drastic increase in child predatory behavior on the internet" with children out of school and teachers unable to "be the eyes and ears of law enforcement" to report suspected abuse among their students.
Local reports to the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force have tripled since schools were shuttered due to the pandemic, and that similar increases have been seen nationwide, Stephan said.
Stephan also said domestic violence reports have increased since stay-at-home orders were issued, and that Rady Children's Hospital has seen an increase in "consult cases," in which cases of suspected child abuse are reported by physicians.
Stephan's letter was sent in advance of Newsom's Tuesday decision regarding San Diego County's COVID-19 category status, when the county could potentially slide into the "Purple Tier," meaning many schools could not open for in-person learning.
"When evaluating the health of our children and our community, we must consider the effects of COVID-19, but also acknowledge and weigh the other real and potentially more life-threatening threat from violence and exploitation of children," Stephan said.
"This is the public safety lens that I sincerely hope you will consider."
Stephan raised similar concerns near the beginning of the pandemic regarding potential increases in domestic and sexual abuse, with abuse victims being trapped indoors with their abusers as a result of self-quarantining at home.
In addition to safety risks, Stephan argued distance learning is not viable for many county residents. She said a lack of reliable internet access -- particularly in rural areas of the county -- should be taken into consideration.
Stephan also said schools serve as a dependable place for food-insecure students to get their meals.