'This is the right time': UCSF pediatrics professor explains why SF schools could reopen now – SFGate

FILE – In this Aug. 19, 2020 file photo, teachers Andrea Gordon, left, and Melissa Stacy go over plans for classroom learning, among socially-distanced desks at Palm Vista Elementary School in Twentynine Palms, Calif. California has not seen a link between the reopening of K-12 schools for in-person learning and increased coronavirus transmission.
In early October, New York City, the former epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, became the first major U.S. city to reopen all of its public schools for in-person learning.
The city had COVID test positivity rates between 1% and 2% in the weeks leading up to schools reopening, and has not seen an uptick in the time since.
“When it comes to school reopenings, there are two things to think about,” said Dr. Naomi Bardach, a professor of pediatrics and policy at UCSF. “The first one is the level of community prevalence that is going to drive cases that might occur in schools. You have to feel comfortable that community prevalence is low enough and stable enough to where there will be no immediate influx of school-based cases. New York reopened school when community prevalence was low, compared to other places like Georgia and Indiana where there was a lot of community prevalence and you saw spikes afterwards.
“The second thing is mitigation strategies, so making sure schools have proper masking, distancing and ventilation. The fact that we haven’t heard anything from New York in the news is probably good news; it means there hasn’t been a big outbreak.”
San Francisco’s seven-day average for test positivity has been below 2% for almost a month now, and Bardach believes that now is the time for masked students to return to socially distanced and well-ventilated classrooms.
“I think this is the right time to do it,” she said. “It’s a window of opportunity for kids to get educated. We have to keep our eye on the ball, and it’s an important goal for us as a community to support our children’s ability to learn and pay attention to all measures of success. When case rates are low, we need to pay attention to that measure of success and not have our children’s education completely obliterated.”
Bardach also believes educators and public health officials should pay more attention to the health impacts of children being out of school.
“As a community, we need to think about more than one set of metrics,” she said. “We pay attention to case rates, but we should also pay attention to distanced learning attendance and absenteeism, obesity rates, mental health, and other harms to our children. We just don’t track those, and we need to. We can’t make policy decisions if we only have one metric and don’t pay attention to other harms happening to children’s health.”
Earlier this month, California Health and Human Services secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said state officials had not found a link between school reopenings and increased community transmission in parts of the state where children returned to the classroom.
“We have not seen a connection between increased transmission and school reopening or in-person learning,” he said. “We’re looking at the information to see if there is a connection, and so far we have not found one.”
The San Francisco Unified School District is currently facing increasing pressure to reopen schools for in-person learning.
A Change.org petition launched by parents hoping to send their kids back to school is nearing 1,000 signatures, and Mayor London Breed has also cranked up the heat in recent days, stating “The School District and the Board of Education need to do what needs to be done to get our kids back in school.”
Many private schools in the city have started to reopen, but public schools have not, as the costs associated with outfitting schools to reopen are steep. The SFUSD has yet to finalize protocols for testing, distancing and sanitization, and must also get buy-in from the powerful teachers’ union. Last month, school board President Mark Sanchez said public schools would “probably” open in January at the earliest, but parents have bristled at this timeline.
Bardach agrees with parents who think the time is now for schools to reopen, so long as protocols similar to those implemented in New York City public schools are in place.
“It does take a while to figure out the logistics and it takes money,” she said. “It also takes time to get the clarity around what the correct protocols are. But I believe we have that clarity now.”
Eric Ting is the editor of California Issues, SFGATE’s politics section. He is an East Bay native who has a Master’s degree in journalism from Stanford University. Eric did his undergrad at Pomona College, where he majored in politics and minored in economics. Email: [email protected]