Public health experts weigh in on how students’ return to school could impact the coronavirus fight

After the state Department of Public Instruction released its guidelines for schools to prepare for the return in the fall, public health experts are weighing in on what is important for parents and schools to remember.

Public health officials have studied the spread of flu viruses for decades, and though the coronavirus is different, the studies can give an indication as to how schools could affect the fight.

Jonathan Temte, the Associate Dean for Public Health and Community Engagement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, runs a years-long, in-depth look at how kids and attendance impact the influenza virus moving through Oregon schools. He said bringing kids back to school needs to be done thoughtfully.

“I tend to think of this as equivalent to a nuclear reactor,” Temte said. “You pull out the control rods and things really take off; put the control rods in, and things slow down. And when we look at respiratory viruses, the taking the control rods out is equivalent to putting children back into schools.”

Because the coronavirus is so new, kids’ impact on spread is still largely unknown, but when kids were sent home in March, Temte said respiratory infections went noticeably down in kids and families.

He said with the flu, spread also lessens after winter or spring breaks, when kids aren’t congregating in school buildings.

It’s a good indication social distancing or distance learning will be key, but it will likely vary in necessity based on how a potential second wave progresses.

“I think what we might have to do is we’re going to have to think of the school year as basically turning up and turning down a dial,” said Dr. Jeff Pothof, the UW Health chief quality officer.

Pothof said parents should anticipate schools needing flexibility on in-person, virtual and distance learning as cases change, and he said that could happen quickly. The flexibility is important not just for kids’ health, but for the health of others in and around schools, too.

“I think we really need to look at this in the broad swath of it’s not just the kids in the school, it’s everyone that makes a school work and the people those kids go home to,” he said.

Both Pothof and Temte said this return in the fall is going to take some creativity from districts, as schools and buses aren’t really set up for six-foot distancing.

Both encouraged patience and grace from parents and employers to make sure both schools and parents can do everything they can to handle the uncertain situation.