Universities and K-12 schools across Northeast Ohio are shifting students to remote learning between the Thanksgiving and winter breaks in light of county stay-at-home advisories and the continuing rise in COVID-19 cases.
That’s an “appropriate and reasonable” move, according to Dr. Bill Miller, an infectious disease epidemiologist and senior associate dean of research in the College of Public Health at Ohio State University, who called the recent spike in cases “dramatic and dangerous.”
The effectiveness of keeping students at home, however, will really depend on how families and communities respond, according to Miller, who said there is a potential downside.
“What I mean by that is, if you decide that your child is going to have playdates and go spend time with other kids, and that's quite conceivable given how tired everyone is of trying to sort of stay home by themselves,” Miller said. “Then you really are exposing children in an environment where you don't have the same control as you have in school.”
Parents, especially those working outside the home, need to recognize the risk of coronavirus transmission at work or in the community, said Miller.
“It's much more common for a parent to bring an infection into the home than it is for the child to bring it into the home from school,” said Miller. “It does happen, but it's relatively rare. It's much more common for an adult to acquire an infection either at work or in social situation.”
Schools, generally, should be one of the last places to shut down, Miller argued, because of the importance of in-person learning to all children and because there is “relatively little transmission” at schools.
“There have been very few outbreaks that have been associated with being in school, particularly elementary schools,” he said. “The risk increases as you go to middle school and high school a bit, but even in the high school setting, most of the transmission has actually been related to out-of-school activities, not actual classroom participation. Probably the biggest risk is teacher-to-teacher transmission, actually, especially in break rooms and things like that.”
Although transmission rates among children at school is comparatively low, there are likely undocumented COVID-19 cases and spread between children or from children to staff because so many children remain asymptomatic, according to University Hospitals pediatrician Dr. Joan Zoltanski. It’s a problem which adds to the rationale for remote learning between the holiday breaks.
“When we see the numbers, we know how to bring those numbers down,” Zoltanski said. “That's by staying at home, not going out as often, masking when we do go out, hand sanitizing and not going out with any symptoms or sticking with those fundamentals.”
However, Zoltanksi acknowledged that for families, wading through the pandemic has been “psychologically hard.”
“We need each other now more than ever,” said Zoltanski, “But we also need to protect the safety of all of our loved ones, of our community, now more than ever, because of the increase in cases.”