Epidemiologists should lead the way

On March 13, 2020, our school board decided to close schools against the advice of then Alameda County Epidemiologist and interim public health director, Dr. Erica Pan. I spoke at the school board meeting about the importance of sharing data and seeking out advice from our county Epidemiologist and following their leadership on these matters. I did not want science to be politicized by people who were not elected to conduct themselves as Epidemiologists. The school board stated they have enough expertise on the board to decide their own school shut down criteria. Criteria which I can’t find published anywhere and which are not being publicly shared by the Health and Safety Committee or its members.

I did not know about Dr. Pan’s position against school closures on March 13, but I found her letter from a Public Records Act request 6 weeks later. In a March 13 letter to county superintendents, Dr. Pan stated:

“The most recent CDC guidance that early short to medium closures do not impact the pandemic Epi curve of COVID-19, and that priority and focus should be given to other mitigation efforts such as improved hygiene, cancellations of non-essential mass gatherings, and other social distancing measures. Countries that have closed schools have not had more success in reducing the spread of disease compared to those that did not. Collectively we need to also balance the impact of school dismissals that disrupt educational continuity and may decrease vital social services that students and families rely upon and have a significant workforce impact.”

Independently my email to the school board on March 13 also stated a number of the points made by Dr. Pan and in that same public records act request, I also discovered other physicians emailing the board to not close schools. I felt that my fears of science being politicized were becoming true even at our local school level.

On March 16, 2020, the Alameda County public health department issued its first broad-based shelter-in-place order that shut down all non-essential businesses in a then successful attempt to flatten the rise of hospitalization rates.

On June 24, Piedmont’s resident Epidemiologist Dr. Rutherford was invited to speak at a school board meeting. Based on his state-wide contact tracing experience he presented many facts that schools can and should reopen. Soon afterward the school board decided the new school year would open by giving elementary school parents a choice of 100% distance learning (DL) or a half-capacity hybrid DL model that required masks and 6-foot social distancing.

On July 13th the school board met in closed session and asked the superintendent to present plans for 100% DL instead. At a special meeting on July 16th, the board approved the new 100% DL plan citing future lockdowns expected by Dr. Fauci and framing the debate as, “how many teacher deaths would be too many”? A day later our Governor ordered all schools in Alameda County closed until they met certain published criteria. The school board later confirmed that even if the Governor lifted his restriction, they are unlikely to lift theirs.

To gauge public opinion, I decided to survey my email list. So far responses to the main question are as follows:

Which instructional settings do you prefer? # Responses % Responses
Reopen schools at full capacity but with masks and a 3-foot separation: 26 22
Reopen schools at half capacity with masks and a 6-foot separation: 56 49
100% Distance Learning: 33 29

The 29% of respondents who prefer 100% DL appears to have increased from when the school district last did their survey. Even allowing for a hypothetical +/- 20% margin of error, it appears a majority of parents are not happy with reopening the 2020-21 school year exclusively in 100% DL mode for all students.

For responses to other questions, see an earlier snapshot here: https://harititan.com/article/reopening-survey-results