Making sense of COVID policies in schools

Students are contracting COVID-19, occasionally in school – but medical experts say school is the safest place for kids. Parents are urged to vaccinate their children against COVID, though children are unlikely to get seriously ill. State policymakers are encouraging schools to increase one form of COVID testing, while ramping down another.

Education policy during COVID is complex, with no easy answers.

“As an education system, we need to be able to explain to parents what is being done, why it’s being done, and convince them, frankly, that what’s being done is still going to keep their kids safe,” said Natasha Ushomirsky, state director for Massachusetts at the Education Trust, a policy organization that advocates for low-income students.

Ushomirsky and Dr. Richard Malley, a senior pediatrician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Boston Children’s Hospital, spoke to The Codcast about changing COVID policy in schools.

Since schools returned from the holiday break, administrators have struggled to staff classrooms with dozens or hundreds of teachers out sick or quarantined, and many absent students.

Medical experts say it is vital for children to learn in person, both for their educational and social-emotional development. Malley said keeping schools open is one way to moderate the virus’s psychological impact on kids. While children have not generally gotten as severely ill with COVID as adults, they have suffered “collateral damage,” including serious mental health issues, he said. “The biggest impact of COVID in children is actually on their parents, on their social networks, on their psychological well-being, on their physical well-being, beyond what the virus can do to them,” Malley said.

But given current staffing realities, Ushomirsky suggested some state flexibility in allowing remote learning might be warranted. “Ideally, all kids should be in school at all times,” Ushomirsky said. “That said, I do worry that the rigidity of the current policy might be preventing some districts and some schools from providing better learning experiences for students.” For example, students who are feeling fine but kept home due to a positive COVID test would benefit from being able to learn remotely.

One part of the changing landscape is testing. Massachusetts was one of the first states to implement test-and-stay, where a child exposed to COVID in school could take daily rapid tests and avoid quarantining. Last week, Gov. Charlie Baker offered schools the option of eliminating test-and-stay and instead having weekly rapid tests sent to staff and families.

Malley said testing close contacts for several days makes sense, since a person can test negative one day but become infectious the next day. But Malley acknowledged that contact tracing, which is required for test-and-stay, is more useful when there are fewer cases and becomes impractical when there are too many cases.

If schools rely on surveillance testing like the weekly pooled testing already used by many schools – or the use of newly available rapid tests, the question becomes how often to do it.

Many of us in the medical field are a little bit worried that once weekly antigen testing is potentially too little, too infrequent to really give us some sense of what is actually happening in the school,” Malley said. Malley suggested there may be a compromise where students who are exposed to COVID test at home, but more than once a week – though that poses logistical and cost issues.

At some point, Massachusetts will have to ramp down precautions as the virus becomes endemic – an illness like the flu that people simply live with. Malley said the Omicron surge, though it appears to be declining, makes clear that “we’re not there yet.” He said the way to get to that point will likely be through increased vaccination, combined with the availability of pills or other therapies and testing, so someone who tests positive can take medicine and avoid the worst outcomes. “Ultimately, I hope this virus will become one of these things that we live with, rather than a virus that dictates how we live,” Malley said.

Looking ahead, Ushomirsky said, stronger guidelines and more resources available in schools for dealing with future surges will be vital. She hopes lessons learned about the use of technology, the ability to be flexible, and the need for communication between schools and families will continue.

“The question is, can we capitalize on that learning?” Ushomirsky said. “Can we really try to do things differently moving forward for students in order to mitigate the impacts of the past couple of years and then in the process, learn how to serve students better from that experience moving forward?”

SHIRA SCHOENBERG

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

State snub: The Department of Conservation and Recreation ghosts an artist group in Hull that is seeking to take a dilapidated state building and convert it into an arts center. Read more.

No criminal charges: The hard-to-understand stairway death of BU professor David K. Jones is called an accident by State Police and the Suffolk County DA’s office says no criminal charges will be filed. Read more.

Not enough: Municipal officials slam Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito’s local aid projection as way too little at a time when funds are plentiful. Read more

OPINION

Expansion ho: Mass General Brigham makes its case for expansion and says its opponents are misrepresenting themselves as community-based healthcare providers. Read more.

Overloaded ERs: Jacqueline Somerville, chief nursing officer for Southcoast Health, says staff vacancies are why hospital ERs are overflowing with patients. Read more.

Nashua River transformation: Steve White remembers how the Nashua River transformed from a polluted river that changed colors on a daily basis into a healthy river thriving with life. Read more.

Reproductive freedom: Given what’s happening at the US Supreme Court, Carol Rose of the ACLU of Massachusetts says Massachusetts must become a leader in reproductive freedom. Read more.

Golden opportunity: Lew Finfer of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network says the unprecedented level of federal funds plus the prospect of a millionaire tax offer the chance of getting the state’s house in order. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu extends the city’s employee vaccination deadline yet another week. (WBUR)

Howard Husock takes stock of the destruction of Boston’s West End neighborhood – in the spotlight recently with the death of developer Jerome Rappaport – to offer Mayor Wu some advice on not repeating the mistakes of heavy-handed government planning. (Boston Globe

A federal judge dismisses the Rockport fire chief’s wrongful termination lawsuit against the town. (Gloucester Daily Times)

ELECTIONS

Secretary of State William Galvin says that he will run for reelection this fall, setting up a Democratic primary battle with Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston NAACP, who announced last week that she’s running for the seat. (Boston Globe

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Danielle Allen said communities need to determine an “exit ramp” from mask and vaccine mandates. (Boston Herald

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The Massachusetts unemployment rate fell to 3.9 percent in December. (Salem News)

Revenue from marijuana excise taxes exceeds revenue from alcohol taxes for the first time. (WCVB)

A pandemic-related puppy boom, with lots of people becoming first-time pet owners, combined with staffing shortages, is taxing local veterinary offices. (Patriot Ledger)

EDUCATION

The Hopkinton schools are trying to decide whether to add more religious holidays – Lunar New Year and Eid al Fitr are being considered – or do away with them entirely. (GBH)

ARTS/CULTURE

A new Hulu series, “The Girl from Plainville,” will feature the Massachusetts case of Michelle Carter, who was convicted of manslaughter for texting Conrad Roy and convincing him to kill himself. (Standard Times)

TRANSPORTATION

The MBTA is investigating human error as the cause of a fatal crash involving an MBTA commuter rail train in North Wilmington. (MassLive)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Critics say the state’s slow regulatory process is tripping up efforts to get solar energy projects quickly approved. (Boston Globe

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

There were 15 domestic violence-related homicides in Massachusetts last year, according to a new report, which was an increase from 2020. (Eagle-Tribune)

Police in Burlington shoot and badly hurt a knife-wielding man who had called 911 and said he was having mental health issues. (Associated Press)

There was a police shooting at the South Shore Plaza in Braintree on Saturday and police are still looking for the shooter. (Associated Press)

MEDIA

NPR’s public editor says Nina Totenburg’s reporting on mask infighting at the US Supreme Court requires a clarification, not a correction, given the response of justices. (NPR)

Houston philanthropies are launching a nonprofit news project. (Media Nation)