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Return to school should be ‘part of a larger plan’ to reopen society

Students, wearing face masks and paying attention to social distancing, study at Les Magnolias primary school during the partial lifting of coronavirus, COVID-19, lockdown regulations in Brussels, Monday, May 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

The American Association of Pediatrics has said that kids will need to be back in school in the fall, and all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having kids physically present in classrooms.

“This is a really tricky question because I do understand the importance both for children’s education and development, as well as their long-term mental health, as well as removing the burden from parents who have really been struggling in many cases to balance home schooling and caring for their kids with their actual jobs that they’ve been trying to do from home,” said Dr. Angela Rasmussen, Columbia University virologist.

It is still not clear, she added, that children are not at a high risk of becoming infected at school.

“We really need to be careful about how this return to school physically is implemented,” Rasmussen said. “A lot of the conversation has revolved around the fact that schools are being treated as sort of a bubble that’s isolated from the rest of the community when that’s not really true. Schools are part of the community. And so, in my opinion, any kind of return to school needs to be taken as part of a larger plan to reopen the economy and society safely.”

Since the kids would be potentially exposed to the virus, as would their teachers and staff, they could be bringing it back home to transmit it to their families.

“We need to stop thinking of schools of something separate and start thinking of them as one piece to the larger society that we need to reopen,” she said.

Whether or not schools open on time for a fall return really depends on the state.

“Right now, Washington state is in good shape,” Rasmussen said. “People are slowly, slowly reopening according to Governor Inslee’s really data driven reopening plan, which is very cautious. If all goes well, maybe we can consider opening up schools, but there’s no guarantee that things will continue to go well.”

“We’ve seen in California they did a great job of flattening the curve, staying home, and now cases in California are spiking too,” she added. “So we need to be very careful about making decisions based on data and what the evidence suggests is safe. And we need to be prepared to potentially dial back some of our reopening activities, including opening schools.”

Politics over health

Rasmussen has expressed concern for Americans as the pandemic continues and cases rise, for multiple reasons.

“I’d say though the biggest sort of central unifying theme of why I’m so worried has to do with how our country continues to fail at its response to the pandemic, decisions continue to be made that are in the worst interest of public health,” she said.

Rasmussen noted that the pandemic has become politicized, which is leading to harmful messages and recommendations from governors and leaders who are thinking more about politics than the health of their constituents.

For example, the governor of South Dakota announced there will be no social distancing enforced at President Trump’s rally at Mount Rushmore this week.

“It’s already been difficult enough to combat the misinformation that has been going around about masks, and people refusing to wear masks in public,” Rasmussen said. “And masks are an important risk reduction measure as is social distancing. So to now add social distancing to the pile of responsible risk reduction practices that are now being politicized and really thought of something to be against is really dangerous and harmful.”

Big rallies and events have the potential to become super spreader events where multiple people become infected.

“We only have to look at Arizona, at Texas, at Florida, to see what happens when public health is not prioritized over political considerations,” she added.

The worst is yet to come

The director general of the World Health Organization warned that with over 10 million confirmed cases and more than a half a million people dead, a lack of global unity and solidarity is helping the virus spread faster, and that the worst is yet to come.

“I completely agree with Dr. Tedros on that, unfortunately,” Rasmussen said. “I think that one of the main functions that the World Health Organization has is really to coordinate international responses, and we’ve seen in this country how the World Health Organization itself has become politicized and President Trump has quite forcefully rejected the World Health Organization.”

“The World Health Organization is not perfect, but during a pandemic, which is by definition an emerging disease outbreak that affects the entire world, we really need to have international collaboration and cooperation,” she added.

Without unity or a central agency to coordinate the response across borders, across countries, policies are at risk of being based on nationalist considerations rather than global health, she said.

“Here in the United States, certainly the worst is yet to come,” Rasmussen said. “We’re seeing now … rates of new cases that are exceeding what we saw in New York in April.”

While some politicians have changed their messaging over time and may be promoting the use of masks or have rolled back reopening measures now, it may not be enough.

“It’s a little too little, too late, in my opinion, but better late than never, I guess,” she said.

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