BMO Family Office
It’s the time of year when most parents typically prepare to send their children back to school. But this is no ordinary year. For many parents, the big question is: Should I send my child back to school?
I recently spoke with Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer of WebMD, about how school districts can approach their reopening plans, why communication with all key stakeholders is essential, and what’s the best approach for moving forward while we wait for an effective, widely available vaccine.
Not All Children Are the Same
Much of the debate about returning students to in-class instruction frames the argument through a K-12 lens. But as Whyte noted, there are significant differences between elementary and high school students in both physiology and behavior, and reopening plans should account for that there’s still a lot we don’t know.
“The challenge is we need more data,” he said. “The schools have been closed since March. What’s going to happen when we have children around each other more? How much it could spread to adults is still something we’re looking into.
A Data-Driven Approach
Whyte stressed that the need for data is essential to any district’s reopening plan. The U.S. has more than 13,0001 school districts overseeing more than 98,000 K-12 public schools.2 With the exception of New York City, Whyte noted, most of the larger districts have moved to an online learning platform for at least a portion of the school year. While New York has taken a data-driven approach—planning to open schools if the infection rate remains below 3%3—Whyte says many other districts have not taken local data into account.
“What’s going to happen in the school is a reflection of what’s going to happen in the community,” he said. “You need to look at what’s happening in the community and have a data-driven decision making process. I also want to look at trends. Are we going up or are we going down?”
Assessing the data, as well as the differences in different age groups, can help guide these decisions. “Maybe have grades one through six come in because they can’t do as well with virtual learning,” Whyte said. “Maybe grades nine through 12 are all virtual. We can balance that until we can figure out what’s happening in the community. But we’re not considering that enough.”
And after analyzing the data, Whyte said school districts and other local officials should use that information to explain to parents and employees the reasoning behind their decisions. “We have to include all parties. I don’t think there’s been a lot of communication with parents. Decisions are being made at the last minute, and parents have childcare issues, they have work issues. Our leaders are not always getting timely information based on data in ways that we can act upon. I’d like to see more of that going forward.”
Teachers and Administrators
While much of the discussion is focused on the children, adults are also greatly impacted by any decision on when and how to reopen schools. Given that teachers and administrators are at greater risk of COVID-19 infection than children, Whyte said it’s essential to make sure they have the tools they need to mitigate that risk.
“They may need to have a mask, they may need a face shield depending on the community they’re in, they’ll need enough sanitizers,” he said. “I’ve been hearing reports where teachers in some districts have to buy these materials themselves—that’s not right. For those teachers, administrators and employees who are at greater risk, lots of school districts have been offering hybrid options for the teachers who prefer to work from home because they’re at increased risk, and they should use those opportunities as they arise.”
While some have expressed hope that an effective vaccine will be available by the end of the year, Whyte is taking a more cautious approach, noting the complexity of vaccine development, the need for more participants in current phase 3 clinical trials, how a vaccine would initially be distributed and how we would measure success.
“Many vaccine trials even in phase 3, after encouraging data, still fail,” he said. “And how are we defining success? Several people have suggested that if we have a vaccine that’s 50% to 60% effective, that’s good enough. Usually our goal is to have a vaccine that’s at least 70% to 75% effective. That means we’re going to have to vaccinate a lot more people if it’s only 50% effective, and I do have some concerns about people’s willingness to get vaccinated.”
He also noted that any vaccine will likely be distributed initially to the most at-risk groups—such as nursing home residents, healthcare professionals and first responders—before reaching the general public.
“We should all be optimistic about a vaccine, but we also have to be realistic that the timeline seems overly aggressive,” Whyte added. “Canada’s public health minister [Patty Hajdu] said we’re in this for another year or two even if there’s a vaccine.4 I’m not overly optimistic, certainly not by the end of the year. I’m saying first quarter  maybe.”
Until then, Whyte said we need to think about how to manage and live with COVID-19 without having a lockdown strategy. And for reopening schools, that means understanding what’s happening in your community at large.
“If we suppress the virus in the community, we’re going to suppress it in the schools,” he said. “In many areas of the country where there’s high infection rates, starting the school year online makes a lot of sense. Allow infection rates to get under control, get a handle on the virus and figure out the best strategy to keep everyone safe.”
In case you missed the live webcast, a replay can be found here.
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