Q&A: How safe is it to reopen schools?

MADISON, Wis. — With school starting in just a couple weeks and some schools opting to allow students back into the classroom, News 3 Now This Morning spoke with UW Health’s Chief Quality Officer, Dr. Jeff Pothof, to answer your questions on returning to in-person classes.

How does COVID-19 affect kids? Even if it’s not fatal, are there longterm effects to worry about?

We know COVID certainly affects kids. We’re still learning more about exactly how it affects kids, it certainly looks like kids get infected.

As a percent of the population, they seem to get infected a little bit less than adults. They make up about 22% of the population, but only about 8% of our COVID cases. They tend to be less likely to be severe, but if they are severe, they have about the same hospitalization rate as adults, but they do better in the hospitals. They’re less likely to need an ICU and they’re much less likely to die. So it’s not that children are immune from COVID-19, they certainly get it, they do seem to fare a little bit better than adults in most of the studies that we’re looking at.

Is it safe to open schools?

When we look at schools, we have to look at each individual district to determine if it’s safe. There’s a few things you want to keep in mind, and one is are the schools actually set up to facilitate social distancing.

If they can perform social distancing reliably nearly all the time, that’s a good sign. You want to look at masking requirements, certainly robust masking policies are very important, sanitation policies, how are they going to do distancing at pickup/dropoff, and then particularily if your school is going to have it, lunch and recess can be tricky times, so you have to look at that.

Any time you have high community transmission, we increase risk for schools opening, but on the flip side there’s also risk for kids not having in-person education, so really it’s that balance between those two things.

At what point should a school go virtual? Is there a certain threshold of cases?

There’s not a particular number that you would pick, but I think what is likely to happen is if you have schools that start to see spread of COVID-19, in the school, during the school day, whether it’s teachers or students, you’d have them take a break to try to figure out who all got exposed, who needs to be tested, who needs to be quarantined. If that rate of positive cases kind of exceeded the ability to quickly do that contact tracing, I think you’d see schools close and go virtual, at least for a period of time.

Since most people recover, should families be allowed to make their own decisions on what they think is safe?

I think this is a little bit dangerous logic.

Although most people do recover, there are many people who don’t recover. If you look at the U.S. and international death toll, COVID-19 is a bad player, it’s a bad disease, and you don’t want it. The other thing that’s kind of difficult about making the decision for your family is that you’re not really making the decision just for your family, you’re likely to come into contact and expose other people, too.

You’re making that decision for more than just yourself, so I would say for as much as we know about COVID right now, it is dangerous, and there are patients that have lingering side effects that are lasting months after their initial infection, we don’t even know how long that’ll go on for. I think the right approach would be, ‘What can I do to minimize the chance that I get COVID-19 and that I spread COVID-19 to other people?’

You’re a dad with young kids. How would you feel about sending your kids back to school right now?

We’re in a school district where they’re able to do hybrid learning for elementary education, and that’s where my girls are at, and I feel pretty comfortable with it. They’re going to be able to physically distance, there’s going to be 12 kids in a classroom, one teacher, no moving around, no recess, no lunch, and like I mentioned, there is tremendous benefit to in-person education that I would love to give my kids.

I feel like the school district we’re in are taking those appropriate precautions, so we’re willing to give it a try and if things don’t work out, we have the option of going virtual, but based on what I’ve heard and what the district is trying to do, I think it’s in the best interest of my girls to try to go back to this hybrid learning environment.