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Our View: Pediatricians’ guidance should be taken into account when schools reopen l COMMENTARY

Last Tuesday, one day after the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with guidance in support of having students return to in-person, classroom learning as soon as possible, superintendents from Howard County and Baltimore City told a legislative panel their districts likely won’t return to normalcy this fall.

Plans are still being formulated by Carroll County Public Schools, considering a traditional reopening, a modified opening that may limit the number of students allowed on buses or in classrooms at one time, and an opening completely based on distance learning. CCPS staff is expected to have a draft ready for review by the Board of Education and the public by July 15.

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Maryland school districts are to submit plans for reopening to the state by mid-August. While the state will be dictating some of what happens, we are hopeful Carroll and all school districts will have a great deal of autonomy. It would be foolish, for example, to expect Garrett County, which has had 11 COVID-19 cases according to the most recent state health department statistics, to open in the same manner as Prince George’s County, which has seen nearly 19,000.

A survey of CCPS students’ parents found that 49% of those responding would be comfortable “reopening for all students,” about 33% would be comfortable “reopening in a limited manner” and about 18% would “prefer virtual instruction.” If given discretion, CCPS should take that into account, although the main factor in how Carroll opens should be where the county stands and is trending in terms of coronavirus cases. Guidance from local and state health departments as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should also be given great weight.

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We do hope, though, that Carroll and all local and state school boards will consider the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidance, which “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school” because “schools are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being.”

In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. Sean O’Leary, a pediatrics infectious disease specialist who helped write the academy’s guidelines, made numerous points worth considering. Among them:

· “What we have seen so far in the literature — and anecdotally, as well — is that kids really do seem to be both less likely to catch the infection and less likely to spread the infection.”

· “There are a couple of things we know now that we didn’t know when we closed schools down in March. One is that masks really do seem to work. They are very effective. Two, physical distancing works as well. If they are taking as many precautions as they can, I think the risk is pretty low.”

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· “Adhering to a six-foot rule, which would mean having a lot of kids at home, may not be in the best interest of overall health. ... [T]he downsides of having kids at home versus in school are outweighed by the small incremental gain you would get from having kids six feet apart as opposed to five, four or three.”

· “We experienced our own kids doing online learning. There really wasn’t a lot of learning happening. Now we’re seeing studies documenting this. Kids being home led to increases in behavioral health problems. ... Reopening schools is so important for the kids, but really for the entire community. So much of our world relies on kids being in school and parents being able to work.”

Accommodations will have to be made to allow students whose parents are uncomfortable with a return to in-school learning to utilize virtual learning. And to ensure that teachers can maintain a 6-foot social distance as they are more vulnerable to the virus than the students. And cleaning and disenfecting will need to be ramped up.

But, assuming the local COVID-19 numbers remain low and with the caveat that swift changes may be needed as the year goes on, the goal should be to get as many Carroll students as possible back into schools this fall.

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