Letter to the Editor: Current State, Federal and Global Guidance Supports Bedford Kids Returning to In-Person Learning in January, 2021

December 31, 2020

Submitted by Ann Kiessling

On December 10, Jeffrey Riley, Commissioner, Massachusetts Division of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), issued “emergency” amendments to Student Learning Time  (https://mailchi.mp/doe.mass.edu/commissioners-weekly-update-12-21-20-board-recap-student-learning-time-updated-quarantine-guidance#updatedquar) in response to  “…a distressing increase in the mental health challenges our students are facing.”  The amendments will be effective January 19, 2021.

According to Commissioner Riley, in October, the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported an alarming increase in child emergency department visits for mental health-related reasons for children aged 5-11 and 12-17 years of 24% and 31%, respectively.  “Feelings of isolation and disconnection among our students are a contributing cause to this growing mental health crisis, the effects of which may persist for years.”  Further, he states “We know that one way to prevent the isolation and disconnection that many students are feeling is frequent connections and interactions with teachers and peers.”

Moreover, on December 4, 2020, the CDC issued guidance for testing for SARS-CoV-2 in K-12 Schools:   “With the increased availability of tests, these considerations are intended to provide guidance on the appropriate use of testing for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) in K-12 schools for surveillance, diagnosis, screening, or outbreak response.  Schools can help protect students and their families, teachers, staff, and the broader community and slow the spread of COVID-19.”  (www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/k-12-testing.html)

The increased availability of tests includes lower cost, on-site tests that could be administered by Bedford school staff under “work-place safety” guidelines from CMS  (CMS.gov).   The school testing strategy should start with teachers and staff, and then possibly be extended to students, as desired by the school community.

This new CDC guidance is in keeping with the CDC’s overall views, as expressed on their website:   “The many benefits of in-person schooling should be weighed against the risks posed by COVID-19 spread.  Of key significance, in-person learning is in the best interest of students, when compared to virtual learning.”  Further: “Education and promotion of positive and supportive relationships between teachers, students and staff should remain the primary focus of school administrators, teachers, and staff.”  And: “To be sure, the best available evidence from countries that have reopened schools indicates that COVID-19 poses low risks to school-aged children.”

These more recent views of the CDC agree with September guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO.int):  “At the forefront of all considerations and decisions should be the continuity of education for children for their overall well-being, health, and safety.   Based on the best available data, COVID-19 appears to have a limited direct burden on children’s health, accounting for about 8.5% of reported cases globally, and very few deaths.”  Further,  “Children under the age of 12 years should not be required to keep physical distance at all times.  Where feasible, children aged 12 years and over should keep at least 1 metre (3 feet) apart from each other.  Teacher and support staff should keep at least 1 metre apart from each other and from students.”   Further,  “When keeping at least 1 metre distance is not practical or hampers support to students, teachers and support staff should wear a mask.”  Moreover, “The shutting down of educational facilities should only be considered when there are no other alternatives.”

Bedford schools are at relatively low risk for SARS-CoV-2.  The extreme 6 foot social distancing currently adopted by the Bedford School Committee, in contrast to the WHO guidance of 3 feet, is to avoid spread of COVID19 by persons who do not know they are infected.  Testing alleviates this unknown, allowing teachers, staff and students to return to their most important business at hand:  LEARNING.  The Town of Bedford’s new program of “Free Testing” for residents implies the town has the financial resources to support the schools in developing testing strategies, which will undoubtedly be less expensive than hiring new staff and equipping new classroom spaces.

Current DESE, CDC and WHO guidance support and facilitate Bedford kids returning to school full time.

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Catherine Van Praagh
January 4, 2021 4:06 pm

I find myself deeply disappointed in the data presented in this Opinion piece. After reading all of the associated links, I discovered that not one of them supports reducing distancing in schools from the 6′ minimum, nor downplays the critical importance of masking. The DESE amendment is to address schools who are failing at giving kids sufficient instruction time with teachers (either remotely or in person) and are leaving kids to educate themselves in isolation. This is not an issue in Bedford, which is easily exceeding the 35 hr “live instruction”over each 10 days of schooling. At no point do they recommend schools move from either remote or hybrid teaching models, nor do they suggest reducing our current standards. While the CDC applauds successful reopening models, many of which are similar to Bedford’s, they continue to recommend that in all models, students and staff maintain 6′ distance and masking at all times, unless absolutely necessary. Additionally, the CDC notes “To be sure, the best available evidence from countries that have reopened schools indicates that COVID-19 poses low risks to school-aged children – at least in areas with low community transmission. That said, the body of evidence is growing that children of all ages are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection (3-7) and, contrary to early reports (11, 12), might play a role in transmission (7, 13, 14).” (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/schools.html) With Massachusetts currently experiencing its highest rates of Covid transmission to date (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/massachusetts-coronavirus-cases.html) , and the the infectious disease community’s increasing concern over the circulation of the new, more highly contagious variant of Covid in the US (https://www.advisory.com/daily-briefing/2021/01/04/coronavirus) it is premature to imagine Bedford can somehow reopen its schools full time and not suffer potentially serious repercussions. Like other parents, I look forward to a point when vaccination rates and low community transmission make returning to fully in-person schooling reasonably safe again, but we have a long way to go yet.

C. Shawcross
December 31, 2020 10:37 pm

I also think that anxiety and mental health challenges, isolation and disconnection are rife not just because kids are in hybrid school but because there is a terrible horrible deadly no good pandemic out there. As an adult, I would mightily object to being told that although cases are the highest they have ever been in MA right now, I can return to work in my office next week — not because something has been improved but because it is a good goal and because there are measures we *could* put in place.

We all want to be back to normal, but we are not there yet. The number of cases in MA is at a crazy high these past few weeks and predicted to keep rising over the next few. Kids may not get very sick, but kids bring the virus home with them to their families. When community transmission is down again, as vaccinations ramp up for teachers, when we are set up for more containment measures — I really like the broad testing strategy that Dr. Kiessling suggests! — that seems like the time to broaden the number of kids and days in school. We’ll get there. Here’s to a better 2021!

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