Editor’s Note: Comilla Sasson, MD, PhD is an emergency medicine physician for 17 years and public health services researcher in Denver, Colorado, who has traveled over the US for the last year caring for patients with COVID-19. She is also the creator of CO2 Check, which is dedicated to improving indoor air quality and airflow. Follow her on Twitter @comilla_s. Robin Cogan, M.Ed., R.N., is a Nationally Certified School Nurse (NCSN), currently in her 21st year as a New Jersey school nurse in the Camden City School District. Follow her on Twitter @RobinCogan or visit her blog - The Relentless School Nurse. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
We will not be lighting up cigarettes in our children’s classrooms. I don’t expect my child’s teacher to light up a cigarette in his or her classroom either. The thought sounds ludicrous to most of us. Why? Because secondhand smoke has been proven to kill.
Think of being unvaccinated like being a smoker who is spreading their secondhand smoke. Let’s call it secondhand SARS-CoV-2 (which causes Covid-19). It is bad for the person who has it and terrible for the innocent bystanders who are now exposed to this highly contagious infectious disease that can make them very sick. The problem is, unlike secondhand smoke, the virus is colorless, odorless, and doesn’t create the physical cloud to let you know you are exposed. It is sneaky, being passed along in microscopic particles which linger in the air around us, especially crowded outdoor and closed indoor spaces.
Freedom in America is grounded in self-determination, a fiercely held belief that is at the core of the Covid vaccine and mask-refusal movement. Unfortunately, your secondhand SARS-CoV-2 is impacting others, including our most vulnerable populations – resulting in even more Covid deaths. Yes, it is your inalienable right to go unvaccinated, or not wear a mask. But it is not your right to kill others.
It is an outright fallacy that kids aren’t impacted by the SARS-CoV-2 virus or that they won’t get “that sick.” We are seeing more children die from Covid-19 than from the flu. And children can also be carriers of the virus, unknowingly transmitting it to their unvaccinated or immunocompromised family and friends. If we are looking to decrease the cases of SARS-CoV-2 in the community, we need an effective school-based strategy to stop the spread. How do we do this?
Over the last 18 months, we have learned there are several effective public health measures that can change the trajectory of SARS-CoV-2 transmission tremendously. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) updated its guidelines just this week to state, “Given new evidence on the B.1.617.2 (Delta) variant, CDC has updated the guidance for fully vaccinated people. CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. Children should return to full-time in-person learning in the fall with layered prevention strategies in place.” Recommendations, without requirements and/or enforcement of these policies, will leave us with disrupted classroom schedules, frustrated parents, educational staff, and the continued spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus throughout our communities.
Here is what the CDC and school officials can do to keep our classrooms open this year:
- Focus on ventilation by opening windows, doors, strategic placement of fans, updates to your HVAC system, and measuring the indoor airflow using carbon dioxide devices. Schools should also use HEPA filter devices which are customized for their size and space. We can do without plexiglass barriers, temperature checks, daily health screening, and ionizing radiation devices that don’t stop the spread of airborne particles. Require schools to publicly report how they are improving the ventilation in their classrooms and common areas.
- Require universal masking in ALL schools: K-12, public, private, colleges/universities, and technical schools. Without a requirement at the state or federal level, masking continues to be a political football. There is a literal free for all happening in school districts across the country with school boards lifting mask mandates based on parental pressures. Currently, states with the highest levels of SARS-Co-V-2 transmission are also where local and state government leaders have prohibited public health preventive measures like masks.
- Require the Covid vaccine for school educators and staff. Kids under 12 are still not eligible for the vaccine, so the people around them have a duty to protect these vulnerable populations. Requiring vaccinations for people working with children is key.
- Three feet of distancing for students in conjunction with universal masking when possible needs to be maintained in extracurricular activities and sports where many of the largest school outbreaks have occurred. The CDC still recommends 6 feet of distancing for staff when possible.
- If having symptoms, get a test (for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people). Even vaccinated people can become sick with Covid-19 and/or transmit it to others. The vaccines are very good, but not 100%.
- Multiple layers of prevention: Contact tracing with isolation and quarantine, free Covid-19 screening and testing, handwashing and respiratory etiquette (e.g. cover your cough), cleaning and disinfecting spaces, and encouraging employers to allow parents to keep their kids home if they are sick will all be other important strategies.
Our first and foremost duty as parents is to protect our kids. We all desperately want them back for in-person school, but the CDC has not gone far enough to ensure kids and schools are safe. By offering the “option” for local ordinances to rule, the CDC has created an environment in which Covid-19 prevention is recommended rather than required. Let’s do what works to keep our kids in school. We owe them that.
We must get rid of the secondhand SARS-CoV-2 cloud that will make them sick. We have preventative measures that are effective. We have data to support these public health measures. But yet, here we are putting our most vulnerable at risk and continuing the spread of a highly infectious virus. Once again, it is the children who are going to suffer the most from the adults who can’t manage to do the simple things right.