As Ann Arbor Public Schools reach nearly five months into a mostly-remote school year, Michigan Medicine hosted a panel of medical doctors from C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital to answer questions regarding safety concerns with students potentially returning to face-to-face learning.
About 240 Ann Arbor community members attended the Facebook Q&A webinar Thursday afternoon, which was moderated by Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Michigan Medicine.
Alison Tribble, doctor of pediatric infectious disease and panelist at the event, began by addressing concerns around whether bringing students back to in-person teaching would risk COVID-19 transmission. Tribble said this is not the case, as several studies have shown minimal risk.
“At this point in time, we actually have really encouraging data that this is a safe move for schools to start returning to in-person education,” Tribble said. “There have been several good studies that have come out showing that the rate of transmissions within schools is really, really low — often much lower than it is in the general community.”
The B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant was another area of concern, which was recently found to have entered the Washtenaw County community with ties to the University of Michigan. Some parents asked about how the variant would influence the decision to return to in-person teaching — which would include spending time in close quarters in classrooms and hallways — as the variant continues to spread.
Terry Bravender, chief of adolescent medicine at Michigan Medicine and a panelist at the event, addressed issues of the variant, emphasizing that it has been found to be highly transmissible compared to the original COVID strain.
“The biggest thing we know so far is that (the variant strains) do seem to be more transmissible,” Bravender said. “So that’s certainly a concern that is going to result in more COVID cases being transmitted in school if these variants become more common in our communities.”
Tribble said there is still a lack of information regarding the variant and its effect on disease severity, making this decision process more difficult.
“I don’t think there’s any reason for schools to say (they) should drastically change their plans because of this. I think we just don’t know yet,” Tribble said.
Rita Young Bantom, a mother of two elementary school-aged girls, told The Michigan Daily after the event she is concerned about how effective schools will be in mitigating the spread and promoting the social distancing requirements necessary to ensure a safe learning environment for both students and administration.
“I believe schools do not have the capacity to distance in a classroom,” Bantom said. “They don’t have the capacity to have materials changed. They don’t have the capacity to provide lunch, gym, art, music or any of those activities without restriction. I think it’s also a challenge to have the children wear masks all day and wear those masks properly.”
Radesky addressed this concern during the event by noting she observes that younger children follow mask-wearing rules better than many adults.
“We get so impressed with how kids wear masks, keep them on and really handle it sometimes better than grownups,” Radesky said.
Though some parents said they worry about COVID-19 safety, Bravender said there are also many drawbacks to remaining in remote learning, particularly pertaining to mental health.
“We’re seeing a dramatic rise in referrals in mental health providers, psychiatric emergency room visits and to our program, about a doubling of the number of patients with eating disorders,” Bravender said. “There’s a clear impact on social isolation and limiting of the normal daily activities for all of us because it’s really worthwhile to remember that one of the best treatments we have for depression is getting out and doing things.”
Though hesitant to send her girls back to school, Bantom said she agrees with Bravender that social distancing has inhibited children from socializing with friends, participating in extracurricular activities and learning to be more independent.
“I think there may be some delays in the maturity of the children from a social standpoint,” Bantom said.
While the panelists recommend schools to reopen, individual school districts ultimately have the choice to keep schools closed. In the meantime, Bravender said he recommends students and families strive to create a normal daily structure as much as possible in the midst of an abnormal situation. This includes getting outside, maintaining a normal sleep schedule and refraining from using technological devices except when necessary.
“I think part of what makes this work is everybody really pitching in and working together to keep community rates low, to avoid gatherings outside of school that might jeopardize your ability to keep your kids in school,” Tribble said.
Daily Staff Reporter Andrea Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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