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Epidemiologist on How to Decide If School Is Safe Amid COVID

An Epidemiologist Shares Her Personal Checklist For Deciding If Her Child's School Is Safe

Service staff disinfecting hands of a girl in the classroom

Parents everywhere are struggling with how to decide if they should send their kids back to school this fall, and although it's clear there's not one right answer for every family, there is one parent whose opinion might hold more weight than the rest — and that's Jessica Malaty Rivera. She's a mom to two young kids, and she also happens to be an infectious disease epidemiologist now serving as the science communication lead at the COVID Tracking Project and a member of the COVID-19 Dispersed Volunteer Research Network.

"Each family needs to determine what risks they are comfortable with and come up with a plan that works for their household."

She is often asked what advice she would give to parents unsure of how to navigate school and childcare amid the pandemic, and instead of offering up what families "should" do, she is quick to share what she herself is doing with her 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, both of whom were to enroll in preschool in northern California come September.

"So far, our plan is to keep them both at home for the rest of the calendar year," she told POPSUGAR before outlining how exactly she came to that decision.

The Two Factors This Epidemiologist Is Using to Determine School Safety

"Two things I'm watching very closely as we evaluate what the next few months could look like for our family are: the case growth in our area and the test positivity rates," she said. "Many places throughout the United States are seeing cases surge. That is a terrible trend to be dealing with as families make choices for their children returning to schools. Ideally, case counts should plateau and begin to drop. The trends should be going in a downward direction. I also want to see the test positivity rate drop below five percent — that is the number of positive tests out of the total tests taken. When it's below five percent, that gives us a sense that mitigation efforts are working, and disease suppression is happening."

So, although she recognises that these are imperfect metrics, her advice would be for concerned parents to consistently track those two statistics in their communities — for instance, she is looking at numbers in the Bay Area, where she lives and where her children attend school, versus just national numbers — and wait for them to decline enough to be indicative that "the disease might be slowing in its transmission."

Rivera acknowledged that moving forward during a pandemic is about reducing risk, not eliminating it.

"Each family needs to determine what risks they are comfortable with and come up with a plan that works for their household."

The Checklist This Epidemiologist Is Using to Decide If She Should Send Her Kids to Their School

To that end, she also provided POPSUGAR with a checklist of what she would expect to see at a school or daycare facility before sending her children there:

  1. A plan to protect the most vulnerable students and staff. "That means making sure that anyone with underlying health conditions are provided with opportunities to participate remotely, however possible," she said.
  2. Daily symptom checks. "I'm not a huge fan of mandatory temperature checks as the data isn't always that helpful because of lots of variables — sweating, user error, missing asymptomatic cases," she said. "But a daily symptom check for everyone entering the campus is a good idea.
  3. Strict sick policies. "All students and staff should be fever- and symptom-free before entering campus," she said. "If a member of the household is COVID-19 positive, the person must quarantine until they have met the CDC's criteria to return to school."
  4. Mandatory mask wearing. All students and teachers "who are physically able" should wear face coverings throughout the day, she advised.
  5. Physical distancing at all times. She said these protocols should be in place "both indoors — with spaced-out desks — and outdoors during breaks and physical education. "Eliminate the need to share materials or supplies," she said. "If necessary, disinfect often."
  6. Major reduction in group gatherings. She said the school should suspend assemblies, choirs, and the spectator aspect of sports competitions, as well as cease the operation of densely populated eating areas. "This includes potentially reducing class sizes by offering split-shift schedules."
  7. Instituting "pod" or "cohort-style" small groups. "Consider keeping small groups of students together — with masks and physical distance — throughout the day to avoid larger mixing of students and staff.
  8. Addition of outdoor classes. A school that makes use of their outdoor space, weather and curriculum permitting, is good to see, she said.
  9. A plan for contact tracing and follow-up testing, should an outbreak occur. "Classrooms will need to be disinfected and schools should be prepared to temporarily shut down," she said. "If that happens, there should be remote learning contingency plans to limit academic disruptions as much as possible."
  10. A paid sick-leave policy for all school staff. This, she said, is a good indicator that they truly value their staff's safety and the safety of its student population.

The Safest School Option, According to an Epidemiologist

For those families willing to do whatever is the safest option possible for their kids, Rivera's answer is clear.

"The safest, but also the most disruptive, option is homeschooling — where the household is not interacting with other students and teachers," she said. "The next option would be part-time microschooling or learning pods, with the understanding that this method is experimental."

She noted that many of the contingency plans in her aforementioned checklist should be considered here, too.

"Households in learning pods, or any pods, should have a group agreement about mask wearing, handwashing, physical distance, and what activities outside the pod are agreed upon."

And, of course, she said how important it is to remember that neither of those options are universally plausible for every household in the US.

"Many essential works have relied on daycares remaining open, full-time," she said. "Many households also rely on schools for meals and even safe places for children. It's an incredibly difficult issue to answer succinctly because no two schools or two households are exactly the same with regard to resourcing and the communities they represent."

Image Source: Getty / Vladimir Vladimirov
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