As some public school students in Fountain Valley returned to campus Tuesday, a prominent UC Irvine pediatrician who has consulted with local educators on the coronavirus said the safety of in-person instruction depends on how well a school prepares for it.
“I’m a believer that the schools should be open and the safest place for the kids is the schools,” said Dr. Dan Cooper, a professor of pediatrics who is leading a research effort with Children’s Hospital of Orange County and the county that will track the progress of return to personal instruction at four Orange County schools.
“We’re about to start a formal research study with funding from the Health Care Agency and CHOC,” Cooper told City News Service on Tuesday. “What we’re going to look at is the viral transmission and mitigation in four schools in Orange County. We start studying that next week.”
The researchers found a range of schools with one private school in Newport Beach, two schools of students from predominantly lower-income families, and a charter school for students with special needs, Cooper said.
The research will involve blood tests to learn more about immune system responses in the students. The study will continue through December.
“We’re trying to get novel and new information,” he said. “And we’ve adopted a novel, direct observational approach. How well is a school adhering to social distancing, how well is a school adhering to face mask wearing. Is there a correlation between viral transmission and the success of utilizing mitigation. Almost nobody has taken a formalistic approach to how do you quantify the mitigation.”
To understand how mitigation efforts work “you have to score it,” Cooper said.
He cautioned that “no one has done a definitive study” on what level children play in transmitting the virus.
“Very few children have died from this,” he said. “But the bad side of this is are they a reservoir for adults… Why is it they are less symptomatic? It might be because they have a different immune response… Or the size of aerosol is different than an older person.”
Cooper estimated that 80% of parents in Santa Ana will want their children to return to schools, because most of them have to work and cannot stay home to monitor distance learning, and classes help serve as daycare. Plus, parents in the Santa Ana area are less likely to have the necessary computer resources.
“In Santa Ana both parents are working, they can’t be there to help the kids out and they don’t have hot spots for good internet access so they want their kids back in school,” Cooper said. “They would rather send their kids to school than some unsupervised, ersatz daycare center.”
In Irvine, it appears about 60% of parents will keep their kids on distance learning, Cooper said.
“In Irvine you have a parent at home to learn with the kids, all have computers and there’s no problem with bandwidth,” he said.
Cooper, who also served on an advisory board for Gov. Gavin Newsom, joined a group of scholars from around the country that wrote a commentary for a science journal at the beginning of the pandemic, outlining the challenges of reopening schools. At the time, the scholars pointed out that the lack of web access and computers will make it tougher on lower-socioeconomic communities.
“We tried to sound an alarm bell,” Cooper told CNS. “My point was the science about what we need to do to open the schools. The science was not in doubt. We need face masks, cohorts of smaller groups of students, physical distancing and hand-washing stations.”
One of the biggest challenges is spacing out students, which is easier in private schools where class sizes are smaller.
“And the private schools are less fettered by unions and less people to report to, so they started planning months ago,” Cooper said. “They put in place really good mitigation procedures. The public schools are unable to do that because they don’t operate a single entity and they have to do it in school districts.”
When the state offered the waiver process, which allowed for some schools to get buy-in from parents and teachers unions, it helped prepare them better for reopening, Cooper said.
But even though the doctor said schools are among the safest places from coronavirus, he added, “We have to recognize there is risk. For anyone to say there is no risk is idiotic. … But what parents want to know is, is the school I’m sending them to ready?”
Adhering to social distancing and mask usage is key, Cooper said.
“If you look at our frontline health care workers, there is data emerging that when these people wear their (personal protective equipment) correctly they don’t get it from their patients. It’s when they go to the break room they forget the rules and sit down together and get it from each other. We call them break room breakouts,” Cooper said.
Teachers have a knack for making sure their students follow rules, so getting them to wear a mask properly will be helpful not only in class, but when they return home to their parents, Cooper said.
It’s more dangerous, he argued, to have kids signed up for unsupervised daycare.
Distance learning presents a host of problems if a parent is not around to supervise it and follow up with homework, Cooper said. Truancy is also a problem with no way to follow up, Cooper said.
“There’s a whole list of problems happening because kids’ schools are closed such as increased obesity, depression,” he said.
Cooper and his team have been meeting weekly with school nurses answering questions about preparing their schools.
“We put together a student symptom algorithm so if a child became symptomatic in school it tells the frontline people what to do,” he said.