Sending children into New York classrooms this fall should be relatively safe — if infection rates remain low, safety protocols are strictly enforced, and family circumstances don’t put them at higher risk, doctors and public health experts said.
With state infection rates hovering at 1%, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Friday that school districts statewide could reopen in-person instruction pending approval of their individual plans. These would include protocols to dampen the spread of the virus causing COVID-19, testing and contact tracing, and options for online alternatives.
But medical experts caution that infection rates could rise in the cooler weather of the fall, as people spend more time indoors, and urge districts to be prepared to quickly reverse course if conditions worsen.
“The risk is low, but not zero, and if we’re not cautious, things can flare and we’ll have to take steps backward,” said Dr. Leonard Krilov, chairman of the pediatric department at NYU Winthrop and chief of its division of pediatric infectious diseases.
He said he and his wife, Barbara, often are asked what they plan to do with their daughter, Jordan, 10, who’ll enter fifth grade in the fall. “We’ve come up with the standard line, ‘Yes, we will send our daughter back, but with angst,’ ” he said.
K.C. Rondello, clinical associate professor at Adelphi University’s College of Nursing and Public Health, agreed that it was “reasonable” to consider opening schools and that New York was in an “enviable position” compared to many other states.
“We’ve gotten infection rates down," Rondello said. But, “Having said that, there are many caveats. Just because the region of a state has met a certain health metric doesn’t mean that’s the right decision for every family and every child. We have to consider this is a dynamic and rapidly changing situation.”
Krilov said there are no cases of children hospitalized with the coronavirus at his hospital or under treatment at the hospital's outpatient clinics, noting that “the vast majority” of the children who developed a multisystem inflammatory syndrome after a COVID-19 infection did well after treatment. More than 200 statewide contracted the disease.
He said parents should keep children home if they show any sign of illness, and added he's worried about districts not having enough resources to provide personal protective equipment, enhanced ventilation and disinfectants. Teachers, he said, should have “some empowerment” if they are not getting the support they need.
“I like to think we won’t have to close down, but we have to be vigilant and prepared to do it,” he said. “It’s the school’s responsibility, but it is also each family’s responsibility to be as careful and compliant if we are going to make this work.”
Krilov said he's worried more about older teens’ compliance than that of younger children: “I’m not naive. … It’s the teenagers that have the sense of immortality. I worry about clustering, if not in school, then after school.”
Dr. Aaron E. Glatt, chairman of Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital’s department of medicine and chief of its infectious diseases division, agreed it's OK to reopen schools, with appropriate safeguards and precautions.
“Everyone needs to take a deep breath,” he said. “The alternative to school isn’t absolute safety. They’re going to be associating with other kids, they’re going to be playing.”
He added, “Get them into a school environment where it will be as controlled and safe as possible while recognizing that in many cases there may be exposures. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have had those exposures playing with their friends in their yards.”
Glatt cautioned parents to keep their children at home if they have symptoms of infection, including any fever over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. “Any time anyone has a sniffle doesn’t mean they have COVID, but they shouldn’t be going in if they have signs and symptoms of COVID,” even if medication had reduced a child’s fever, he said. “I think everyone should be on hyper alert.”
Many children with COVID-19 infections show no symptoms, but “you can’t do much about that,” Glatt said. “You can only follow the rules about masks and isolating.”
In making his announcement about reopenings, Cuomo talked about COVID-19 testing by districts to monitor for infections, which surprised some superintendents, as guidelines had called for testing to be performed in conjunction with local health departments.
Rondello said districts may not have access to enough tests for routine monitoring, but “at a minimum, we have to test all those we have a reason to suspect have been exposed.”
Parents will have to weigh their own family members’ health vulnerabilities against the benefits of their child's return to the classroom, he said.
New York was in a far better situation than other states with higher infection rates. But pointing to photos that circulated recently showing packed hallways and unmasked high school students on their first day of school in Georgia, Rondello said, “We can do better and we have to do better because that’s not going to cut it.
“We’re in extraordinary times and we can’t go about business as usual and expect the situation is going to improve. We can’t create a 100% safe environment, but we can certainly do better than that."