Strategies to reopen schools safely

Back to School: Facts First

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Students across the Rochester and Finger Lakes region are heading back to school this week with a focus on COVID-19 safety.

Dr. Jeff Harp from Highland Family Medicine explained what lessons can be taken from schools which have already opened and what strategies can be implemented to achieve a healthy outcome Tuesday during News 8 at Sunrise.

“Our largest experience in the United States is with the reopening of colleges,” said Dr. Harp. “We know that gatherings of large numbers of students without recommended precautions has resulted in rapid spread of COVID-19 on some campuses, with up to one quarter of the students on some campuses infected.” SUNY Oneonta discontinued live instruction and sent students home for the fall semester.

Dr. Harp added that there are already reports of elementary schools discontinuing live teaching as a result of COVID-19 cases. A major reason for closing is the need to quarantine contacts. One case may have from 25-50 contacts. Other countries, Germany for example, have seen a significant increase in the number of cases about two weeks after reopening schools.

To decrease the risk of spread Dr. Harp said we need to practice familiar strategies. “The strategies are the same ones that we have been using already. Students should wear masks from the time they leave home until the time they return home with very few exceptions. Many children have not been wearing masks for the length of time that they will need to wear them in school. Experts suggest that children practice at home by wearing masks continually for several hours a few times before attempting to do this at live school. Physical distancing is also important. Even when masked, the recommendation is that students stay six feet apart. Many schools have reduced class sizes to make this possible. Large group gatherings, such as occur traditionally at mealtimes, will be modified. When wearing a mask is not possible, such as when eating, students should be more than six feet apart. Hand washing and disinfecting equipment and surfaces should both be done frequently.”

Dr. Harp said parents can reinforce the importance of prevention and even practice some of the recommended practices, such as wearing a mask and washing hands, at home. “Parents should be watching daily for concerning signs and symptoms. Students with fever, cough, or intestinal symptoms should be kept home. Parents should contact the students’ primary care clinician for advice about care and testing. Parents also should be aware of the measures that schools are taking and notify the schools of any concerns. They should make sure that the school has mechanisms for updating parents, including notification of new cases or changes in policy, regularly.”

Dr. Harp added the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is unknown. Our area has been successful limiting the spread of the virus by taking the above measures. Keeping students and teachers safe will require a similar effort.

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