COLUMBUS, Ohio — Gov. Mike DeWine will leave the question of in-person versus remote learning up to individual school districts as the 2020-’21 academic year begins, he said in an education-focused Tuesday news conference.
The governor declined to make hard rules or even recommendations about the correct way for educators to proceed. Instead, he centered the conference on a trio of medical experts who had been called to provide their perspectives on how COVID-19 affects children and what families should do to prepare them for the upcoming year.
COVID-19 in Ohio kids
About 13% of diagnosed COVID-19 patients across the state are people under the age of 20, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
“Fortunately, most children are reasonably well with their symptoms of COVID-19,” said Dr. John Barnard, chief of pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
Only about 8% of child patients with COVID-19 require hospitalization at some point, according to Barnard.
He was the first expert to address Ohio via teleconferencing on Tuesday. At the time he spoke, he had good news: No children were in intensive care at any of Ohio’s children’s hospitals.
However, he cautioned parents to remember that COVID-19 can be a serious illness for some children, especially those with existing health problems such as obesity and diabetes.
DeWine’s next expert, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital chief of staff Dr. Patty Manning, said older teenagers with the independence to travel and meet alone with friends “are at great risk for spread” during those interactions.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, so are younger children who require close, sustained physical contact as part of their care. Manning said doctors now define “close contact” in COVID cases as any contact within six feet that lasts 15 minutes or more.
What parents and teachers should do
Manning said she supports in-person education whenever possible, but “possible” depends on the safety measures in place to protect children and their families.
“For that education to be safe, there are really four very specific strategies in order of importance that we want schools and families to be aware of,” she said.
Her list, from most important to least: Masking, distancing, hand hygiene and surface cleaning.
Manning said distancing, especially, may be a challenge with groups of children. A full six feet might not be a reasonable expectation.
“Six feet is optimal,” she said. “Six feet is great, but three feet is also good, and four feet’s a little better than three feet, and five’s better than four feet.”
She encouraged parents to rehearse safety measures with their children before the school year starts, including helping them get used to mask-wearing, distancing and frequent hand-washing.
Manning also emphasized that parents should live by the rules as they teach them.
“If we want children to wear masks, we have to wear masks,” she said. “We have to model that behavior for them as the adults and the parents in their lives. It’s really all for one in this type of climate that we’re in.”
Finally, Manning said, parents should take time for their child’s emotional well-being and help them mentally prepare for the unusual year ahead. She’s given her patients in the clinic the same advice.
“Let children know that it’s OK to be uncertain,” she said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty. We’ve been dealing with a tremendous amount of uncertainty, and sometimes children look to us for recognition and approval of that uncertainty. ‘Yes, we know it’s different. We know that things have changed, and that’s OK. We’re going to learn together as we go.’”
What’s the plan?
Dr. Adam Mezoff, chief medical officer at Dayton Children’s Hospital, was DeWine’s final expert. He and a team at Dayton have focused their efforts on creating procedures for positive cases at schools — and on creating tools that help school workers understand them enough to implement.
Mezoff walked viewers through three potential scenarios in which a student tested positive, outlining who his experts believe should be tested or quarantined in each situation.
Scenario 1: A student who takes a 10-minute bus ride to school every day, sitting at the back of the bus and wearing their face covering only half the time, tests positive.
Mezoff said the child’s family and classmates who had close contact with them should isolate and be tested if they develop symptoms, but the bus driver and students sitting near the sick student do not need to be isolated. The length of time they spent in the same space did not qualify as “close contact.”
Scenario 2: A student who attends a mandatory-masking school but sits under six feet from their nearest classmate tests positive.
Mezoff said family and classmates who had close contact should be isolated but do not need tests unless they develop symptoms.
Scenario 3: A volleyball player who wears a mask during group huddles but takes it off during practice tests positive for COVID-19.
In this case, Mezoff said, teammates and coaches should isolate but do not need to receive tests unless they develop symptoms.
He ended his rundown with the most important thing for every teacher and staffer to know: “If you’re sick, stay home. It doesn’t have to be COVID.”