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UW pediatrician: Plans for reopening schools have to be ‘balanced with the risks’

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Much has changed about what we now know COVID-19 does to children, and it’s all informing the debate on whether or not we should actually reopen schools in Washington and all across the country. Dr. Don Shifrin, local pediatrician and clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, joined the Jason Rantz Show to weigh in on sending kids back to school.

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“Traditionally healthy kids are not being exposed as much as adults who are reopening the economy, and right now we’re not testing a lot of children who are asymptomatic,” Shifrin said. “We’re testing children who are mostly symptomatic, and we are seeing an increasing number of cases of kids who are, shall we say, testing positive for the coronavirus.”

“Obviously, children have reduced vulnerability to the effects of the coronavirus, with the exception of some youngsters who are having a post immune response about 20 to 30 days after the virus gets into their body,” Shifrin added. “… So we can’t really give children a huge pass. But there’s no question that if we look at other countries, we know the children are vectors by which the coronavirus can pass to adults.”

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Dr. Shifrin says we have balance the vital need to get children properly educated in schools versus putting them in a potentially risky, crowded situation.

“As a pediatrician and a parent, schools are fundamental to children’s adolescent development and their well being. It’s an oasis of support for many kids, and we must get them back into schools,” he said. “Kids need schools, and attending offers children that huge benefit of both education and health. But it has to be balanced with the risks that are entailed by sending them into a ‘very crowded situation.’”

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The other piece to reopening schools has to do with the adults who are going to be there. What should adults be reasonably worried about when it comes to going back in the classroom with a kid who could potentially be asymptomatic and spread the disease?

“Obviously, right now we have more questions than answers. But one of the things that we do know is that older kids may transmit coronavirus as much as adults do. And some of the younger kids who are asymptomatic may transmit more virus than some of the older kids, so that with younger kids, keeping them separate, keeping them in masks, is going to be a difficult thing,” he said.

“Obviously, if you have a teacher that’s over 50 that has medical complications, they’re going to be at risk, especially in the older grades from age, let’s say 10 to 19, they’re going to transmit coronavirus at a much higher percentage than the younger children do,” he added. “We know from Norway, Finland, Belgium — their elementary school classes have not had as much transmission as some of the high school classes.”

Would Shifrin send a kid to school if everything was done according to the outline from the state superintendent?

“It really depends on the age of the child. If I have a youngster who is going to be a senior in high school and has some medical complications, I would be very wary. If I had a preschooler, or a first grader, or a second grader and I was reasonably certain that the school had taken precautions after going to meetings and seeing what preparations the school had, I would send my youngster to school again,” he said.

“Making sure that the school buses, and the classrooms, and the hallways, and the restaurants and the cafeteria precautions all were, shall we say, as safe as they could be,” Shifrin said. “But that’s going to require a lot of preparations.”

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3 – 6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here.

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