Texas pediatric group says schools should reopen safely in the fall

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — As school districts try to figure out what things will look like in August, the Texas Pediatric Society said students need to return to learning in-person with safety concerns a priority.

“We have to be prepared to be flexible and make adjustments, as we see things happen in our communities, so that we can make sure that we protect our communities,” said Dr. Tammy Camp, President of the Texas Pediatric Society.

The Texas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics recently released guidance and explained as pediatricians are starting to see more children, they’re also noticing the effects of isolation. 

“They have had so many episodes not feeling like they’re connected to their peers, as well as teachers, and we realize the detrimental effects of that on their mental health,” explained Dr. Camp. “We’ve seen such increase in depression, anxiety and mental health problems, as well as just so many students telling us they didn’t do the work or they didn’t learn as much.”

Dr. Camp explained it can be especially tough for those children from disadvantaged backgrounds or with special needs. “Many children received their food security… from being in a school and having those meals provided to them,” said Dr. Camp. 

TPS said the longer the absence from in-person education, the more significant will be the academic losses.

Virtual learning shortfalls

Sera Bonds understands, but said the risks are just too high for sending her two sons to school this fall.

“We are planning on having our kids learn remotely from home,” said Bonds who has a 10 and 11-year-old. “It was terrible this spring, but it seems safer you know just from a public health perspective. It just seems like the right thing to do, to keep them home given that especially in Texas right now it is not a safe place to be going out and about.”

Bonds, is the co-founder of Waking Giants, which provides programming and education around anti-racism and parenting during COVID-19. 

She’s also worked on a number of humanitarian emergencies across the world, including the bird flu pandemic. 

“I provided the infectious disease community health programming support to people on the ground doing the work,” explained Bonds. “During the bird flu pandemic, I was in Asia for that. So, I was going out to the fields out to rural Vietnam and talking with community health workers and meeting with them in person.”

The Austin mom said right now she’s preparing and gearing up for virtual learning.

Dr. Camp explained that during March to May when districts were providing distance learning, many families had inadequate technology, no internet access, space, and parental time for supervision.

“There is so much value of having those professional educators, who are involved in teaching children those basic core subjects, but it’s also more than that,” said Dr. Camp. “Kids have so many social – emotional developmental processes that take place at school. Those interactions are so critical to their growth as an individual.” 

Harm versus benefits

The AAP guidelines are broken down by groups including Pre-K, Elementary Schools, Secondary Schools, and Special Education. The organization explained that physical distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, disinfecting, utilizing outdoor spaces, rotating teachers instead of students, staggering busing and lunches need to be a priority. 

“Although many questions remain, the preponderance of evidence indicates that children and adolescents are less likely to be symptomatic and less likely to have severe disease,” said AAP’s guidance online. “Children may be less likely to become infected and to spread infection. Policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within schools must be balanced with the known harms to children, adolescents, families, and the community by keeping children at home.”

Dr. Camp said districts need to also be flexible when it comes to virtual learning for students and staff who can’t attend, especially as COVID-19 cases spike in the state.

When considering contingency plans, if COVID-19 cases increase, schools are urged to take into account the needs of the most vulnerable children and families, and to consider all possible ways to continue in-person if it can be done safely. 

The organziation also emphasized that schools should not be penalized for variance in attendance during the pandemic. 

“Certainly, we don’t want to put families at a greater risk, but we also understand this pandemic is going to have a lot of lifelong consequences for many of these children,” said Dr. Camp. “We have to make sure that we don’t intensify those effects by continuing to not have kids in school where they get many of those other supports.”

As for Bonds, she’s been tracking cases and explained had the state handled things differently her kids could have returned to school instead of taking part in remote learning.

“Several other developed countries decided to only open schools, but not open places of business, restaurants and bars. The rate of community contagion stayed low,” said Bonds. “I’m not sure that there’s really a right answer. There is just what’s right for you and your family and your community.”

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