Schools Prepare for Reopening

Sanjivan V. Patel, MD, FAAP

Sanjivan V. Patel, MD, FAAP

Schools Prepare for Reopening:  COVID-19 and MIS-C and How it Relates to Parents, Teachers, Students, and Pediatricians

Sanjivan Patel, MD, FAAP
Chairman, Department of Pediatrics
Wyckoff Heights Medical Center

Kyle Russell, DO, PGY3
Chief Pediatric Resident
Wyckoff Heights Medical Center

Chenyu Zhang, B.S., OSM-IV
Medical Student
New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine

            As schools prepare for reopening, there are multiple factors to consider in order to ensure the best chance at a safe and secure reopening for children, teachers, and families. Schools across the country and the world have reopened with mixed results, which is why it is imperative to follow guidelines to give the schools the best chance of success.

Schools around the country have recently opened with various outcomes. Some school districts are able to have classes with no increase of spread yet while others have had staff deaths and subsequent closures. Community transmission rates have a significant impact on safely opening schools. New York City has had a positive test rate of less than 1% for the weeks up to the proposed school opening date4. The lower positivity rate leads to less asymptomatic carriers to potentially spread the disease.

However, recent reports show that 55 Department of Education employees have tested positive for COVID-19 in the week prior to the potential start date. Of those 55, at least 45 are teachers. This number is out of 17,000 tested, and marks a positivity rate around 0.3%4. While this number may be small, the potential for this to spread exponentially remains high, especially considering the amount of students, parents, and staff each of these people may come into contact with. To further complicate matters, these results are from tests administered two weeks prior to results, which allows a large window of potential infection time.

In order to decrease the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible, it is critical for students, staff, and teachers to stay home when symptomatic. The CDC reports symptoms of the SARS-Cov-2 virus may appear 2-14 days after exposure and include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea. However, there are known asymptomatic carriers that can spread infection. Among them, children tend to be asymptomatic more frequently than adults3.  While previously believed that children were not significant carriers of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, recent studies have shown that they may carry similar or risk of transmission. While children tend to not have as severe of an illness than adults, they may be a significant vector to community spread 1.

Children are also at risk for developing Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children or MIS-C. MIS-C is known to be a possible sequela of  COVID-19. This is a serious inflammatory syndrome and your child’s doctor should be notified. Prevention for this syndrome is the same as prevention for COVID-19.

MIS-C Symptoms:

  • Fevers lasting for more than 24 hours
  • Red eyes and/or a skin rash
  • Abdominal pain, diarrhea or vomiting
  • Child seems confused or overly sleepy
  • Trouble breathing

In order to protect yourself, your child, and school staff members, simple prevention techniques should be used.

  1. Hand hygiene is critical, especially after touching door handles, subway rails, or other objects that come into contact with others.
  2. Social distancing, or staying 6 feet apart from others, helps decrease the odds that one comes into contact with respiratory droplets from another person who may be infected.
  3. Face coverings, such as surgical masks, fabric masks, or any other covering that covers both the nose and mouth decreases the droplets the wearer produces and therefore protects others. This is critical because even if one does not have symptoms, they may be an asymptomatic carrier or be early in the disease course and unknowingly infect many others.
  4. Eye shields could also prevent respiratory droplets from coming into contact with the mucosa of one’s eyes and may prevent transmission.

Schools have adapted methods in order to increase safety. Each day, children and staff members should have their temperatures checked and fill out a health screen prior to admittance. Schools are also offering different teaching styles to decrease interaction between children. The hybrid model includes a mixture of online learning from home and in-person learning, with many schools having students in school every other day to decrease exposure. For schools offering in-person learning, many are offering pod style classrooms. These pods have a smaller number of children in each classroom with an assigned teacher. This allows for less in person interaction by eliminating multiple teachers or staff members in classrooms, eliminating the need to change rooms, and limiting the number of children each student comes into contact with each day. In addition, school districts may also offer a full remote option, with all classes and assignments done virtually from home.

However, all of these options have both advantages and disadvantages. While a completely remote option is the safest for students and teachers alike, it requires supervision. A parent or caregiver would need to be home during learning. This inherently favors the wealthy, which are able to hire help to care for their children, afford to not work, or have a job where they are able to work from home. There is also concern for how effective remote teaching is when compared to in person learning. Pod style learning allows for children to continue in person learning and peer interaction with other students, but limits their potential exposure. By limiting the amount of people that work with the children restricts access to additional support, such as counselors and specialty teachers. Complete in person learning has the most traditional style that students are used to. Even with the improved methods for screening and sanitizing the environment, it has the highest exposure risk to teachers, students, and families alike.

Regardless of the route chosen by schools and parents alike, schools will require more resources. Schools will need staff to conduct symptom and temperature screenings, provide sanitizing solutions, and extra staff for smaller classes for in person training. For virtual learning, schools will need computers and cameras for staff to teach classes. Students will also need computers with cameras and microphones, as well as stable internet. This is difficult to ensure for all students, as 1 in 5 teenagers were unable to complete schoolwork at home due to the lack of a computer or internet connection5. This disproportionately affects Black, Hispanic, and low-income families.

Extracurricular activities are another benefit of attending school in person. Be it from participating in PE and art classes to the various clubs and sports most Middle Schools and High Schools offer, extracurriculars provide another layer of education and enrichment to our children. While this may not impact families with access to plentiful resources, in school art, music and PE classes may be the only exposure that a child from a low income family would have to certain art resources, a musical education, and various sports equipment. On the other hand, involvement in sports teams, especially contact sports, in school may increase the risk of transmission. Outdoor sports such as tennis, cross country and track would be less likely to be impacted by this pandemic. However sports such as football, soccer, lacrosse, baseball, and basketball involve moments where COVID would be spread. Swimming would be another activity where it would be especially hard for students to comply with mask regulations. As we learn more about the inflammatory and long term effects of COVID-19, we are also finding that patients are at a higher risk of myocarditis than other diseases, which is dangerous and could be fatal, especially with exertion during sports6.

Opening schools carries both significant positives and negatives. For those who opt into in person schooling, personal protection and infection control is critical. Schools should have a protocol in place for returning to school when sick, especially with influenza season arriving. In order to protect our children, their families, and school staff, self-quarantine when symptomatic, social distancing, and masking methods are imperative to curb the spread of COVID-19.