SACRAMENTO, California — California’s Catholic bishops said they understand the “real and ongoing” threat of the coronavirus and concerns over returning safely to schools, but they also are worried about schoolchildren’s overall health and development if they cannot return soon to classroom learning.

They urged Gov. Gavin Newsom “to expedite issuing regulations that will enable local health authorities to grant waivers for pre-K, primary and secondary schools to open for in-person instruction.”

“Fast action by the governor will allow decisions to be made on a case-by-case basis at the local level, by those public officials, along with educators, who are in the best position to evaluate safety concerns in individual schools,” they said July 22.

“We are deeply concerned about the broader health and development issues for our children if the state presumes to rely only on distance learning until a vaccine is developed,” the bishops said in a statement issued by the Sacramento-based California Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the bishops.

On July 17, Newsom announced all schools from transitional kindergarten, or TK, through 12th grade will be held to new requirements for resuming in-person instruction. So, schools in 33 counties across the state will begin the new school year with only distance learning.

“Most of the state’s counties — including Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties, plus the Inland Empire (adjacent to Los Angeles) — are currently on that monitoring list,” the LAist media outlet reported. “Basically, unless conditions improve in Southern California in the next two to three weeks, any plan to start a new school year with in-person instruction might have to be set aside.”

The new directive says that neither public nor private schools can hold in-person classes if their county has been on California’s coronavirus monitoring list at any point in a 14-day period. Until a county has been off the watchlist for 14 straight days, schools must offer only distance learning.

“In-person learning, especially at the lower grades, provides emotional and social skills and supports that are crucial to early childhood development and the overall well-being of children which simply cannot be replaced,” the Catholic bishops said in their statement.

“What our children will lose by ‘virtual’ education — in terms of emotional development, skills and learning and achievement — will have a significant impact,” they continued. “In the name of protecting their health in the short-term, we may very likely be risking their long-term growth and potential.”

The bishops also pointed to public-health science suggesting elementary-age students “can return with low risk of infection or transmission of the virus among students or between students and teachers.”

The prelates also took issue with Newsom’s new rules describing Catholic schools as “private.”

“Catholic schools are not just a concern for Catholics and it is not accurate to describe our schools as ‘private,'” they explained. “Our schools serve an irreplaceable public good in giving young people the chance to realize the American dream, especially young people from racial minority and low-income families.”

Across the state, in every Catholic diocese, “our schools serve mostly racial minority students, and more than half of our schools are located in urban or inner-city neighborhoods,” the bishops said. “Many of the children we serve are not Catholics.”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the bishops pointed out, the Catholic Church in California “has supported and cooperated with public officials’ efforts to contain the spread of this deadly disease, including closing our schools and suspending public worship.”

“We took these steps, not because the government issued orders, but because our God is love and he calls us to love for our neighbors,” they said. “That means working for the common good and protecting the sanctity and dignity of human life, taking special care for the poor and elderly, the sick and vulnerable.”

The Catholic schools during this lockdown made “a remarkable transition to distance learning,” they said. “Within days, all of our state’s Catholic schools were up and running, teaching students online.”

The schools also “have been diligently implementing the Centers for Disease Control guidance for schools and the recommendations of local health authorities in preparing to return to the classrooms,” the bishops said.

They urged Newsom to “continue the dialogue” on how to open schools safely and said they “stand ready” to work with him and others on “an issue of such importance to our great state and especially to its poor and minority peoples.”