• Michael Misialek, MD

Students in Massachusetts Should Return to School

If you live in one of the 318 communities in Massachusetts where COVID rates are at or below the national benchmark (white or green on the below map), there is no reason why children should not be going back to school for a full in person learning experience.

Why? I explain…

Last month the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine issued a report prioritizing reopening with an emphasis on providing in-person instruction for students in K-5. It is believed that distance learning is not ideal for this age group. Young children, particularly in grades K-3 are still developing the skills needed to regulate their own behavior and emotions, maintain attention, and monitor their own learning. Academic, social, emotional, mental and physical health are best served by in person instruction.

These opinions are also held by the American Academy of Pediatrics. In their recent report they stress that kids learn best when physically present in the classroom. Again, academic, social, emotional and mental health depends on it. Schools provide healthy meals and exercise. They serve a critical role in addressing social and racial inequality. None of these assets are transferable to an online format.

The CDC is also urging a return to in person instruction if possible. Current guidance describes the critical role schools play in in supporting the whole child, not just the academic achievement of students. Schools play a crucial role in the wellbeing of communities.

As a local physician, having cared for COVID-19 patients, I know very well of the devastating impact the pandemic has imparted here in the community, and across the globe. I also know that Massachusetts has seen a steady decline in COVID-19 test positivity rates, such that we are among the lowest in the country. The 7 day average of positive test rates in Massachusetts has consistently been under 2% for at least a month. As of today, it is at 1.4%. Massachusetts also reports sustained favorable trends and/or goals met for many of the metrics followed by the DPH. I can confidently say that Massachusetts is one of the safest states in the country currently.

Schools must invest in creating a safe classroom with strict social distancing measures, mandatory mask use and aggressive hand hygiene. School districts should adopt a symptom tracking system, similar to what many health care systems use, such as the example below. Both students and staff need to attest to a lack of symptoms in order to report to school each day.

If asymptomatic, then a pass is issued clearing the student or staff member to enter the building.

Another important strategy for a safe return to school is testing. Local communities should consider frequent testing of students and staff. Virtually every college is implementing widespread testing. Why not our elementary schools? Testing technology has advanced such that accurate results can be obtained from simple nasal swabs. Many such solutions are already in widespread usage across the state.

Of course, none of us can predict where the pandemic is headed. However, Massachusetts has done a remarkable job managing the pandemic, and with several optimistic candidate vaccines in the pipeline, there is no reason not to believe things will improve further. I urge communities to carefully consider the facts and make every effort for full in person learning.

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