‘Culture shift’ on taking sick days needs to happen to get kids back to school safely, expert says

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ If Rhode Island parents want to send their kids back to school in person in the fall, an infectious disease specialist with the R.I. Department of Health says it will take a culture shift that makes it acceptable for those who are sick to stay home.

Dr. Philip Chan, the consultant medical director with the Health Department’s Division of Preparedness, Response, Infectious Disease and EMS, said employers and educators must be understanding when a sick employee or student takes the day off.

“I’ve had the sniffles, I’ve been a little under the weather and I’ve still gone to work at times,” Chan said. “But we have to change that culture a little bit. If I’m feeling ill, I need to stay home, and our employers, our bosses, everyone has to respect that.”

Chan, along with Dr. Len Mermel, the medical director for the Department of Epidemiology and Infection Control at Rhode Island Hospital, joined Gov. Gina Raimondo and Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green during an online forum Thursday afternoon to outline what protocols need to be in place to safely reopen schools in on Aug. 31.

Raimondo said the state will soon be in a position to conduct 9,000 COVID-19 tests per day, which would have a turnaround time of two days for results.

Mermel said testing is key since students or teachers would be tested quickly if they may have come into contact with the virus.

“Having the capacity to test is a major step forward in mitigating future risks,” he said.

But it’s not all about testing, according to Mermel.

“The testing alone is not going to get us there,” he explained. “If you want your kids to go to school safely, you need to tell your neighbors, your friends, your colleagues, your classmates that they need to march to the same drum. We all need to be doing this together and that’s how we are going to open schools safely.”

Chan recently helped create a document called “The Playbook,” which he said will be “a step-by-step on what happens when various situations arise.”

“So what happens if a student tests positive? What happens if a staff member tests positive? How long do they isolate for? What happens with the students around them? Who’s considered a close contact?” Chan said.

Mermel said when possible, getting students outdoors for class or to eat lunch would be much safer than keeping them indoors.

“I think dilution is part of the solution,” Mermel said. “If you’re spewing out a few viral particles and you’re in a small room, there’s a risk that that virus can stay in the air for a little while and infect someone else. But if you’re outside and there’s a little breeze in the air, there’s a lot of dilution that’s happening and there’s much less risk.”

Raimondo acknowledged that while returning to school will be “awkward” and “different” for everyone, she hopes students and teachers alike will become comfortable with wearing masks and social distancing prior to the start of the academic year.

“We are going to get these kids back to school because they need to learn and grow and be nourished,” she added.

Raimondo and Infante-Green plan to continue holding online forums over the next several weeks as they prepare for the upcoming school year.

Previous coverage of the weekly online forums:

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