PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — In order to protect both students and teachers from the coronavirus this fall, one health expert told state leaders Thursday they must invest in the necessary tools to do so.
Hundreds of people tuned in to the second in a series of online forums ─ hosted by Gov. Gina Raimondo and Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green ─ Thursday afternoon regarding plans to safely reopen schools in September.
The forum featured R.I. Department of Human Services Director Courtney Hawkins and noted epidemiologist, pediatrician and Yale School of Public Health Dean Dr. Sten Vermund.
Vermund said the most effective way to protect students, faculty and staff is to provide hand sanitizer and masks to everyone, install plexiglass where appropriate, and ensure all schools have enough cleaning supplies to frequently sanitize classrooms.
But he admitted that schools will need assistance from the state to make it happen.
“We’re going to need to have some investments in our schools … we teachers can’t do it all by ourselves,” he said.
Raimondo said the state plans on making those investments and will be providing temperature-screening devices, masks and upgraded air filtration systems, among other supplies, to all schools.
“We are not going to say ‘good luck’ and go back to school the way it was,'” she said.
Both Raimondo and Infante-Green have set a goal to have in-person classes resume on Aug. 31. Each school district recently submitted three separate plans to the state: one for full in-person learning, one for full remote learning, and one hybrid of the two.
On Wednesday, they released new benchmarks that need to be met in order to fully reopen schools.
Vermund explained that the concern isn’t necessarily with children falling ill, but instead with the children passing it on to those who are more vulnerable to the virus.
“The child could be a vector to your grandmother who lives in your home,” Vermund said. “We are very keen on controlling viral transmission in children, and if they do get sick, the worry is perhaps greater on who they might infect.”
In the United States, roughly 45% of people are under the age of 35, according to Vermund, and less than 1% of COVID-19 cases have occurred in this age group.
He said even though the disease can prompt an unusual immune response in children, it is rare.
“The childhood immune system does not overreact the way the elderly immune system does,” Vermund said.
The forum also touched upon what lessons the state has learned from reopening child care centers.
“We have implemented a number of safety standards that will be the kinds of standards parents should expect to see in schools, such as limiting contact, small stable groups, frequent cleaning, regular daily screening,” Hawkins said. “It’s been a tremendous amount of work because this is not how we typically operate, but it is possible and we are demonstrating that when you put the work in, it is possible to do that.”
What’s most important, Hawkins said, is that everyone “listen to the science.”
“We have to listen to doctors, and even though we are all afraid, we can’t rest in that fear,” she added.
Vermund said it’s also important to remember we won’t be in this situation forever, and that there are promising therapies and vaccines being studied.
“We’re almost there with coronavirus,” Vermund said. “We’re already in the treatment era. We are making progress.”
“I’ve done HIV research and we’ve gone 40 years and we are nowhere near a vaccine, but coronavirus is easier,” he continued. “It looks like we are going to get there. This is not a time of doom and gloom.”
Vermund issued a reminder that children are resilient and can adapt to the world around them.
“Kids can be so helpful,” he said. “We can make masks fun, we can make them part of the whole experience. We can have children empower children to protect adults. We can have children remind us to do the right thing. I think that is great experiential learning opportunity that we’re facing.”
“Not every kid gets to grow up in a pandemic, so why not have them engage it, battle it and be part of the solution?” Vermund added.
Raimondo and Infante-Green held their first online forum last Thursday, and plan to continue holding them over the next several weeks as they prepare for the upcoming school year.