Opening schools safely this fall and getting students back in the classroom for in-person learning five days per week will require several public health precautions, including vaccinations, masks and pooled testing, a panel of experts said Thursday night.

“Really tried-and-true public health interventions like masking and distancing, cohorting, earlier identification of disease, all of these things work together like they always have to prevent infectious disease spread,” said Dr. Laura Blaisdell, vice president of the American Academy of Pediatrics Maine chapter. “… Each of these interventions is not a silver bullet. I think most of us have heard of the Swiss cheese model. You have to layer each of these layers on top of each other so each of the holes – the relative weaknesses of each of the public health interventions – gets closed up.”

Blaisdell was one of three experts who spoke during the Back to School Forum sponsored by the Maine Community Action Partnership, Maine Public Health Association, Maine Chapter American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups Education Fund. Dr. David McDermott, a family physician with Northern Light Health’s Mayo and C.A. Dean hospitals, and Ross Berkowitz, the principal at the Fisher Mitchell School in Bath, also participated in the virtual forum, which was open to the public.

The panel focused on two important topics for the coming school year – masks and vaccinations – and offered some tips for parents about communicating with doctors and school officials. The event had good timing as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new guidance this week recommending that everyone in K-12 schools wear masks regardless of vaccination status.

Even before the CDC’s guidance was released this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics was recommending universal masking in schools for all students and staff over age 2. Both Blaisdell and McDermott support the CDC’s decision to follow with a similar recommendation.

“Seeing the increased rates of COVID in children, it didn’t take too much reasonable thinking to realize with the delta variant being more transmissible coming into the school year, it would require those tried-and-true public health interventions like masking to keep kids safe,” Blaisdell said.

Absent any mask mandates, however, the policies individual schools adopt will be up to their administrations and school boards. Right now, Berkowitz said schools are taking in information from the federal and state governments, as well as public health and school association groups. They’re also looking at the data on cases and vaccinations in their own communities.

Berkowitz had hoped students and staff in his school wouldn’t have to wear masks this fall, but at the same time he said students overall did a great job with masks last year. “As I was watching the news and following the numbers, I was fully anticipating they would have this recommendation,” Berkowitz said. “I personally, knowing our kids aren’t vaccinated and there was the possibility of masks, I was planning on wearing one anyways as a model.”

With regard to vaccinations, both Blaisdell and McDermott said that while some colleges and universities are requiring COVID vaccinations for students and staff, it’s too early to make any kind of decision about vaccine mandates in K-12 schools, where so many students are not eligible for vaccines because of their age. They encouraged parents who have questions about whether their child should be vaccinated to talk with their primary care physicians.

“Across the state, primary care practitioners, their offices are open and they’re ready to have that conversation with people and help you make what is ultimately a very personal decision,” McDermott said.

Another step that can be taken to ensure schools open safely is to keep community transmission as low as possible, McDermott said. If members of the community take steps such as wearing masks indoors and getting vaccinations into the arms of as many eligible people as possible, it will help ensure the feasibility of opening schools. “If enough of us take these precautions and if enough of us get the vaccine, the virus can’t replicate and it can’t jump from one person to another and eventually it will go away,” McDermott said.

The panelists also recommended that parents and students who have questions seek out conversations with their school administrators and school boards and keep in mind the stress for everyone involved with opening school during a pandemic.

“We need to understand our school administrators have the best view of the community at heart,” Blaisdell said. “Write your principal or write your teacher and say thank you. It’s exhausting and never-ending to open school programs and children’s programs during this pandemic.”

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