Dear Decaturish – City Schools of Decatur should offer in-person learning option for all studentsBeacon Hill Middle, formerly known as Carl G. Renfroe Middle School, City Schools of Decatur, W. College Avenue.
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We are a group of public health and medical professionals writing to express our concerns about the narrow use and misrepresentation of science in justifying the elimination of 6th-12th grade students from an option to return to in-person learning in the City Schools of Decatur. We believe CSD’s decision to maintain virtual learning for 6th-12th grades is based on a misread of the available evidence on school-based transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It also takes a narrow view that fails to account for the science related to student mental health and the protections that come from students’ connection to school, as well as evidence that prolonged virtual learning is having an adverse impact on students in the US. As a result this decision has the potential to further needlessly and irrevocably damage the mental health and academic success of CSD students.
While no setting where adults and children congregate can be made completely risk-free, schools have been demonstrated to be low risk for transmission of COVID-19. Research conducted throughout Europe, Asia and Australia has shown very little transmission in schools, with a wide variety of mitigation measures in place. In the US, with significant community transmission across the country, schools have opened without substantial school-based transmission. While cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in students and teachers, contact-tracing has not identified school-based transmission as a significant source of secondary infections. Rather, they were exposed in community settings.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides guidance on an array of mitigation strategies for schools, including the use of face coverings, physical distancing, environmental hygiene, and cohorting, there is no evidence to suggest that all of these must be in place to the degree the CSD is requiring, in order to prevent school-based transmission. Schools currently open for in-person instruction use a variety of overlapping mitigation strategies. There is no evidence to indicate that cohorts of fewer than 15 students, the recently announced requirement for CSD in-person instruction, is necessary to prevent transmission. Although cohorting can be utilized as one strategy, it can be accomplished through a variety of approaches (e.g., hybrid models that split the school population for alternating days.) The rigid adherence to an arbitrary cap has no basis in available evidence or best practices observed in other districts successfully returning face-to-face.
Insufficient attention has been afforded to the mental health status among students in a virtual environment. There now exists a great deal of evidence that long term virtual instruction is damaging many students’ learning and development and exacerbates already existing inequities in educational outcomes. While some individual families indicate that their child or children have adapted and are doing fine, the bulk of families and students have expressed feelings of stress and feeling overwhelmed, and early indications show the very negative impact of virtual learning on academic achievement. There is extensive evidence that connection to schools and important adults in school protects youth from a host of risks including poor mental health and substance use. These important health protections are not accounted for in the current cost-benefit analysis shared by CSD.
It is extremely unfortunate that confusion and disagreement about what is best for students and educators has led to reprisals and recriminations. However, it is our educated belief that, with basic mitigation strategies in place (such as masking, physical distancing, hygiene and creative scheduling), the risk of school-based transmission of COVID-19 among 6th – 12th grade students and their teachers can be effectively minimized. To deny them this option continues to place our youth at greater risk for negative mental health outcomes l. Despite CSD’s belief that their current decision takes a science-based approach to what is best for students’ health and safety, we strongly disagree.
Jennifer Brooks, MPH 32 year public health professional
Kristy Campbell, AAC, Anesthesia PA 20 years
Bethel DiMaggio Ziesenitz, Occupational Therapist, Certified Hand Therapist. Emory Orthopedics
Jessica Doyle, MD, Community Pediatrician in Decatur for 10 years
Kathleen A. Ethier, Ph.D. Psychologist, 30 year public health professional
Christine Hall, PhD, Child Psychologist for 15 years
Cyndi Hatcher, BS, MPH, 18 year public health and infectious disease professional
Heather King Smith, MPH Community Health and Health Promotion
Nancy Messonnier, MD, 25 year public health professional
Mark L. Messonnier, MS, PhD, economist, 25 year public health professional
Mary Helen O’Connor, PhD, Associate Professor, community engagement/public health
Daniel C. Payne, PhD, MSPH , infectious disease epidemiologist
Rebecca Payne, MPH 22 year public health professional
Jessica Rogers Brown, PhD, MPH, Infectious Disease Epidemiologist, with extensive work on COVID-19
Michele Russell, PhD, Clinical Psychologist for 24 years
Michael Sauer, MD, Pediatric ED physician for 10 years
Kristen Sullivan, MS, MPH, 17 year public health professional
Sarah Szlam, MD, Pediatric ED physician for 9 years
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