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Doctors: not all schools should reopen

Rep. Curt Sonney, R-Erie and chairman of the House Education Committee, is pictured leading a committee hearing on reopening schools on Tuesday.

Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Association of Pediatrics doctors are advocating for true local decision making when it comes to sending children back into school buildings or learning online this year.

Dr. Trude Haecker, chapter president and a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and Dr. William Keough, co-chair of the chapter’s Advocacy Committee and a pediatrician in the Pittsburgh area in the UPMC Health System, submitted written testimony to a Pennsylvania House of Representatives Education Committee hearing on Tuesday advocating for schools to reopen in areas where there aren’t high levels of COVID-19 spread and not reopening schools in areas where COVID-19 is rampant.

“Ideally, local school leaders, public health experts, educators and parents can work together to decide how and when to reopen schools. These decisions must take into account the spread of COVID-19 in the local community, as well as whether their schools can make in-person learning safe,” Haecker and Keough wrote in their testimony. “Schools and families should also prepare to go back to virtual learning if COVID cases increase in the community or are at levels of community transmission deemed unsafe for return by local or state public health authorities.”

The doctors also reiterated American Academy of Pediatrics statistics showing children, particularly those under the age of 10, are less likely to spread COVID-19 than children over 10 and adults. Evidence also shows household transmission is typically from adults to children, with far less occurring from children to adults.

In addition to social distancing, use of masks and hand and cough hygiene, Keough and Haecker suggest having teachers move between classrooms rather than having students in hallways between periods; allowing students to eat lunch at their desks or in small groups instead of lunchrooms and leaving classoom doors open to reduce high-touch surfaces in schools.

The pediatricians also called for an end to any non-medical exemptions to vaccines as they looked ahead to a COVID-19 vaccine sometime during this school year.

“During the height of the emergency in Pennsylvania, vaccination rates in young children were down over 60%,” the pediatricians testified. “Pediatricians and Family Physicians are ready and available to see children safely and provide their necessary vaccinations. Schools and the healthcare system will not be able to serve their populations safely and fully if we are experiencing outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases while simultaneously dealing with community spread of COVID-19.”

In additional testimony, Pennsylvania’s independent schools want legal protection from lawsuits if a child or their family contracts COVID-19 when schools reopen later this month.

During a Tuesday, Gary Niels, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools, asked lawmakers for increased funding for non-public schools to purchase personal protective equipment and assurances that school bus companies will have buses available for non-public schools if public schools decide to hold classes entirely online. But, the top request Neals made was for legal protection.

“I think the term blanket immunity suggests that a school could be negligent and still be covered,” Niels said. “No, I don’t think tha’ts what I’m asking for. I’m asking for some sort of stated immunity, and I’m not a lawyer at all, when a school has been responsible and done everything they can and students still contract the virus, then they would be protected from legal action against the school.”

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