Ask Dr. Halverson: Kids, COVID-19 and K-12 education

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By Dr. Jim Halverson
The decision to reopen Ojai schools this fall is extremely complicated. Medical, educational, developmental, social and economic factors all must be taken into account. The focus of this article will be the medical factors involved. Many in Ojai are working very diligently on the other concerns and I admire their efforts and defer to their expertise in those areas.
    1) COVID-19 infections are on the rise in kids and teenagers.
 Initially, the Centers for Disease Control estimated that those younger than 18 made up only 2% of COVID-19 cases. However, current numbers paint a very different picture. In California, nearly 10% of all reported cases are in children 17 and under. Ventura County has reported 499 cases in that age group out of 5,000 total cases. In Florida, the current epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, one out of three children tested have been positive. The numbers are rising, epidemiologists say, as testing has become more available to those with mild or no symptoms, encompassing many of the pediatric cases, and as those under 18 are increasingly involved in social activities as states have reopened.
        2) Children can transmit COVID-19 to other children and adults.
Children are very often the primary driver in spreading influenza during the winter months. Although coronavirus transmission from children to others has not appeared to be as significant as adult transmission in countries with declining rates, many researchers feel that children will play a major role in spreading the virus this fall if the United States continues to fail to bring the coronavirus under control. Family members, teachers, school support staff and after-school daycare workers will particularly be at significantly increased risk.


    3) Children can develop severe cases of COVID-19.
To date, nearly 300 children nationwide have died of COVID-19 and many more have struggled with long hospitalizations and persistent complications after hospital discharge. If we have high case numbers here during this upcoming school year, we could see very severe, life-threatening illnesses  for some of our Ojai Valley children.
    4) Long-term effects of mild to moderate cases in children will take years to assess. 
This is a new virus. Already, we are seeing significant numbers of older survivors struggling with ongoing health issues. Will infected children have an increased risk of asthma, other lung conditions, developmental difficulties or other chronic health problems?
    5) Mandatory quarantines of children or teachers with proven or possible cases will make it a challenge to maintain on-site attendance. 
Current guidelines recommend a 14-day quarantine at home if you have a high risk exposure. Many students and teachers could miss a significant number of school days due to mandatory quarantine requirements.
Parents, students and teachers all agree that online learning is extremely challenging and difficult. In addition, in-person peer interaction is critical to childhood development. Keeping young people apart from one another can lead to delayed development and will increase the chances of children developing significant psychological or social problems.
Families often rely on school and after-school programs to allow them to go to work. Parents are losing jobs. Many also rely on schools to provide food for their children during the school day. Without on-campus learning, many families will struggle.


We have a significant number of students in our valley who are what is termed “school dependent.” These are students who were already at a disadvantage because they lacked school success supports at home. These supports include having a parent who speaks English, a parent’s ability to provide instruction, resources in the household and the availability of an adult at home during the day or evening hours to provide support and encouragement. Our special-needs students with identified learning challenges that require alternative types of instruction also fall into the category of “school dependent” students. The gap in the academic achievement of these students will likely widen without the daily instruction and intervention that are delivered on a school campus.
This summer, Ojai Unified School District was able to offer on-site summer programs. Procedures already outlined by school district staff were put into place and adjusted as needed. According to the administrator in charge of the elementary program, Katherine White, both students and staff enjoyed being back together on a school campus, despite all the safety protocols that were required. “The masks hid their smiles, but their eyes told the story. They were happy to be here!” shared Mrs. White. The daily attendance on the elementary campus was approximately 60 students per day. At the secondary level, approximately 50 students attended daily. Fifteen teachers provided these students with face-to-face instruction during July. Until the recent surge in cases that resulted in all Ventura County schools currently not being eligible to hold in-person classes, there was an excellent chance that schools would have reopened in August with multiple options for families.
When comparing Ojai data to other areas of Ventura County, Ojai is an anomaly. Our numbers are low. Perhaps there will be new guidelines in our future that will allow individual school districts to open provided the number of cases in the communities they serve are below a threshold. 
In the meantime, you can help by socially distancing, wearing a mask where required, avoiding crowds and washing your hands. Support our schools. Thank our teachers, administration and school support staff who are working so diligently to make our schools as safe as possible. Donate to school causes if you have the ability. Support and encourage families who are struggling.
 We need our schools open. I encourage all of you to keep our Ojai Valley as healthy as you can. We are a very special community. Continue to strive to keep it that way.
Stay positive, stay committed, stay safe and stay well.


— Dr. Jim Halverson is a longtime Ojai physician who writes a weekly column on COVID-19 for the Ojai Valley News.


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