‘There is not much of a safety concern’: Brown’s Dr. Jha on the spread of COVID-19 in schools

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WLNE) – As teachers’ unions in Rhode Island put pressure on the state to move schools virtual for the holidays as coronavirus cases climb, a health expert is saying that schools should stay open, and closing them should be a last resort in a shutdown.

Dr. Ashish K. Jha, physician, researcher, and Dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, is sharing what he and other doctors have found while pouring over data over the last few months.

“Especially K-8, but even some evidence in high school, it’s very clear at this point that schools are not places where there is major amounts of spreading happening. We don’t see schools driving spread in the community, we don’t see schools as a place where a lot of people are getting infected,” Dr. Jha said in a Zoom interview with ABC6. “Obviously nothing is perfect, it’s not like schools are completely immune from the virus, but they seem to be safer than most other places where people gather.”

Dr. Jha and his colleagues have been analyzing data from other states where public schools re-opened earlier than others.

“You can start by looking at things like Florida and their experience when they opened schools in August. Not only did they not see a spike in cases among younger people, but they in fact saw a declining number of infections among young people.

“You have data such as that from Emily Oster, who’s also at Brown. She’s been collecting data on thousands of schools from around the country. They find rates of infection between .1%, .2% of kids, maybe slightly higher for staff, but again much lower than what you’d expect based on community transmission alone.

“The evidence here is so clear,” Dr. Jha explained, “especially for K-8, that it makes essentially no sense, and the idea it somehow is a trade-off between in-person education and safety… it’s not a tradeoff. At this point, there is not much of a safety concern for K-8.”

But teachers’ unions in Rhode Island are still sounding the alarm.

The National Education Association of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals issued a press release Monday, calling for in-person learning to halt statewide for K-12 students by November 23.

“With the contact tracing, the number of people being quarantined, and the staffing, it just seems like… we know Thanksgiving and Christmas is gonna be tough anyways, it’s flu season and everything else. So why not hit pause for 3 weeks rather than have to say hit pause for 7 or 8 weeks?”

NEA RI’s President Larry Purtill said Tuesday that while the experts’ data is accurate, and in-person learning is best for the students, it’s the issues around slow contact tracing and staffing shortages that make schools unsafe.

“Staffing right now is a huge issue. Trying to maintain stable pods, and keeping people safe with so many people being out, that’s the challenge and the issue, not so much where it’s spreading or where it’s coming from,” Purtill said.

If Rhode Island does go into a lockdown in the coming weeks, Purtill said he’ll continue to urge the state to close schools.

Governor Gina Raimondo has said that closing schools would be a last resort.

Dr. Jha pointed to the state of Michigan, where the Governor is ramping up restrictions again but is keeping public schools open. He said areas of Europe are successfully doing the same.

“I’m often asked, is there any circumstance in which you’d close K-8? And the answer is theoretically, but schools should be the very last things to close. Not only do they have incredible social value, they’re among the safest things that we could be doing in terms of any activity outside of the home,” Dr. Jha explained. “So, my take is, schools should be the last things to close, first things to open, and the evidence and, really, the experience of people around the world is, we can run schools safely, even under large outbreak situations.”

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Categories: Coronavirus, News, Providence, Regional News, Rhode Island