US experts: Get vaccinated, wear masks to keep schools open during COVID

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Vaccinations, masks and other measures are vital to keeping schools open while COVID-19 is present in the community, said two public health experts in the US.

“For the time being, the priority is to maintain in-person learning if the school environment remains a safe place,” said Dr. Tina Tan, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

“I 100% agree that virtual school is not a substitute for in-person school,” said Sara B. Johnson, a pediatrics professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

At the beginning of the last school year in August 2020, the Current contacted Dr. Tan and Johnson to seek their opinions on policies to protect educators and students during the pandemic.

They both indicated their support for actions such as mandatory mask-wearing, good hand hygiene and spacing students as much as possible inside classrooms.

As it turned out, the lack of COVID in the Cayman Islands allowed local schools to operate without masks or social distancing all last year. However, the recent outbreak of COVID in George Town Primary School caused authorities to close the school and then issue a mandatory mask advisory for all public schools.

Cayman public health officials have not yet published a finalised plan for how local schools will respond to future COVID cases in students.

Vaccinations AND masks

On Monday, Dr. Tan, who is a pediatric infectious diseases specialist, said via email, “My advice for school guidelines has not changed from last year. In fact since COVID-19 vaccines are available, the recommendation for the vaccination of all eligible persons 12 years of age and older is strongly recommended and there are many schools where vaccination was made mandatory for teachers and staff.”

Cayman has one of the highest rates of COVID vaccination in the world, with 71% of the estimated population of 71,106 people being fully vaccinated. If you subtract children under the age of 12, who generally cannot receive the vaccine yet, then the vaccination rate of the eligible population is somewhere around 80% or above.

Regardless of whether someone is vaccinated or not, Dr. Tan said masks in school are strongly recommended.

“The [US Centers for Disease Control], American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Infectious Diseases Society of America strongly recommend universal masks for all teachers, students and staff regardless of vaccination status,” she said.

Some parts of the US are struggling with COVID in schools in the face of opposition to mask mandates.

Dr. Tan said, “There continue to be areas of the country where there is a lot of opposition to children wearing masks in the school setting which has made trying to prevent school outbreaks more challenging as there continues to be a significant amount of COVID-19 Delta variant circulating.”

Social distancing, hand washing, ventilation

In addition to masks and vaccinations, Dr. Tan cited other measures such as “social distancing, good hand hygiene, cohorting, good ventilation of classrooms, frequent cleaning of high touch areas, preventing gatherings of large groups of students and teachers, and having in place protocols for testing and contract tracing if someone becomes symptomatic or tests positive for COVID”.

Johnson seconded Dr. Tan’s advice, adding that compared to last year, “there is less focus on plastic barriers (not necessary, generally, if folks are masked) and cleaning (routine cleaning, yes, but there’s no need to shut the school down for in-depth cleaning if a case is identified)”.

Johnson emphasised good hand hygiene and “common-sense strategies” like staying home when you are sick, whether or not you suspect it is COVID.

Noting that Cayman has “the great advantage of temperate weather”, she said via email that opening windows to improve ventilation is “a simple strategy to reduce the likelihood of transmission”.

Johnson said, “We continue to see mealtimes in schools as higher risk times because children are unmasked and distancing can be challenging. Having children eat outside has been a popular option here, but as the weather gets colder in part of the US, that will become infeasible. Things like singing and eating, if done outside, can be made safer.”

Keeping schools open

While Cayman schools are making preparations to shift to virtual learning in case education and public health officials close the buildings in response to a widespread community outbreak of COVID, both Dr. Tan and Johnson said virtual learning is no substitute for in-person schooling.

“Virtual learning for the most part is NOT an effective solution. In-person school is critical for social and emotional development. The lack of in-person school over this last year has had a serious negative impact on children that has resulted in significant increases in mental health issues especially in the adolescent population (e.g. depression, anxiety, suicidal ideations and attempts, worsening of ADHD), falling standardized test scores, and decrease in academic progress for all students,” Dr. Tan said.

She said virtual learning was difficult for students with limited or no access to the Internet or computers. She also noted that in addition to education, schools provide other important services such as being a reliable source of food, providing speech/occupational therapy and holding after-school programmes.

In late July, a panel convened by Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Cayman Islands discussed the negative consequences of the pandemic and last spring’s protracted lockdown on children in Cayman. (Read our story here.)

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