Keeping our kids and communities safe as schools reopen

Published July 21, 2020


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated masking guidelines since this was written. Get the latest information

The following piece is an editorial essay that ran in the Omaha World-Herald on July 20, 2020. 

Rohan Khazanchi is an M.D./M.P.H. student, Nebraska-raised public school graduate and the son of two public educators. Dr. Sara Hurtado Bares is an Infectious Diseases physician and public school parent. Dr. Kari Simonsen is a Pediatric Infectious Diseases physician, public school parent and she has advised several school districts on fall reopening plans. This essay expresses their personal viewpoints rather than those of their affiliated employers or institutions.

Back-to-school planning looks decidedly different in 2020. School districts are releasing plans for reopening while COVID-19 spreads within our state. We are grateful for the thoughtfulness each district is putting into plans, as our children stand to benefit tremendously from a return to the classroom and doing so safely requires an immense amount of resources.

However, as public health experts, infectious diseases clinicians, Nebraska public school graduates and proud family members of public school students and teachers, we worry about the potential resistance to mask and physical distancing requirements.

The apprehension is understandable, and we share many of the same concerns. How can we teach our kids to wear masks? How do we protect educators and staff? How do we balance the benefits of learning in the classroom with potential risks to our community?

Expert guidance supports the decision to reopen schools, so long as evolving science and local incidence rates are continually taken into consideration. Although teachers, parents and students have valiantly attempted distance learning, we recognize the last few months have been a poor substitute for classroom education. However, this decision to reopen cannot be sustained without evidence-based safety measures.

The Nebraska Child Health and Education Alliance last week issued detailed "Returning to School Safely" information on its website. 

It is critical to note people without symptoms can transmit COVID-19. Further, masks really do work. They are one of the only effective defenses we have available in the fight against COVID-19. Leading medical organizations emphatically recommend masks in public settings, especially when it is difficult to physically distance. While younger children and children with disabilities may require more nuanced guidelines, the Centers for Disease Control and American Academy of Pediatrics recommend requiring masks alongside other measures like hand-washing and physical distancing.

We recognize these are not normal times and our community is frustrated. However, it is important to remember who will be harmed if we do not take these measures seriously.

We are worried about our patients with risk factors for severe COVID-19 who work in schools. We are worried about students and staff who will face the risk of contracting a virus that has affected everyone’s lives, but disproportionately harms our most socially vulnerable communities. We are worried about our children, who cannot learn, grow and thrive without a full return to school.

There are clear actions each of us can take to ensure the path forward is safe and evidence-based:

Parents -- Contact your school board to advocate for a mask mandate, not just a recommendation. Practice wearing masks before school resumes and continue to encourage hand-washing and other preventive measures.

Teachers -- Continue to follow physical distancing, universal masking and other public health measures when around your colleagues and friends. Although children have a lower risk of catching and spreading COVID-19, the risk among adults remains high.

School district leaders and board members -- Ensure that public health experts are at the table when district recommendations are developed. We understand and empathize with the challenges you have in front of you. We may not be educators, but we have insight into evidence-based approaches to keep your students and staff safe.

Policymakers -- Public school districts are in dire need of resources, financial and otherwise, to implement necessary public health measures. The decision to open schools may be easy for now, but keeping them open will be a challenge if teachers, staff, and students are not adequately protected.

All -- Every member of our community can model healthy behaviors and practices; these measures are new to all of us, but students will be more likely to accept them if the people they look up to and peers they spend time with are modeling them. This includes wearing masks in public spaces where physical distancing cannot be maintained.

We hope our message compels everyone to advocate for measures that promote a safe return to school. The health of our neighbors, especially our most vulnerable students, teachers and community members, depends on it.