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Pediatrician Says Keeping Kids In School Is Priority

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New Hampshire has issued COVID-19 guidance for schools for the coming year, but the state is leaving it up to local districts to make their own decisions when it comes to COVID safety.

Dr. Steven Chapman is a pediatrician with the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, and he’s been working with schools in the Upper Valley as officials there navigate making decisions about which COVID protocols to put in place.

NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with Dr. Chapman about how his first priority is keeping kids in classrooms. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Steven Chapman: Full in-person learning is really paramount for the overall well-being of kids. There should be few, if any, barriers for return to school by all students in this upcoming year. We really think that it's important to take the full measure of the health and well-being of kids, and risk to COVID is certainly part of that. But over this past year, we've also seen a mental health epidemic in many of the kids. Isolation, socially, academically, in other ways as well, it's really taken a toll on many kids and has really been an enormous burden on many of our families, particularly those who are least well positioned to bear that additional burden.

Rick Ganley: I want to talk to you a little bit about state guidance as it pertains to last year. You know, New Hampshire released guidance for COVID safety, but the districts make their own decisions in which protocols to put in place. Now, with the spread of the delta variant, and rising COVID cases and some hospitalizations among children in the U.S., do you think the stakes are higher this year?

Steven Chapman: The delta variant is a unique challenge. It's more contagious than other variants have been, and it really raises the bar again on the importance of a layered approach to reduced risk for kids. But there's a lot else that's changed over this last year. We have a significant number of people in the community, and thankfully teachers, who've been vaccinated and have that level of protection. Even though the delta variant is here in New Hampshire, and Vermont and northern New England, we really have nothing close to the rates in parts of the rest of the country, particularly the south. And so what it means is that the measures that we're taking seem to be working.

We know that vaccinations work, and that is the most important step that we as a community and those that are eligible for the vaccine can do to reduce the risk of transmission. We know that masking works. We saw little to really no in-school transmission last year when schools were open and masks really worked to prevent transmission of COVID in school environments. We really saw schools as more reflective of community transmission rates, rather than drivers of community transmission rates. So I wouldn't say the stakes are higher than they were last year. We're still nowhere near last winter's rates in terms of cases, hospitalizations, and fortunately in New Hampshire, we still have not yet seen a death in a child. But this is not the time to relax. This is not the time to let our guard down. But it is time to open up the schools and full in-person with taking the proper layered precautions that we know work.

Rick Ganley: Well, as you know, we do have a lot of local control issues here in New Hampshire. Some school systems are mandating mask wearing, others not. Do you agree with the state's approach to allow local control rather than require schools to implement certain COVID protocols?

Steven Chapman: Well, what's important is what happens at each school level. And I'm really hopeful that where there are community transmission rates that are posing a risk, and by that we mean moderate to substantial community transmission, both in terms of the number of cases per 100,000 we're seeing and the test positivity, those schools in those areas really should be masked. And I think through the different recommendations that are really being issued from the CDC, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, my professional organization, I think that message is pretty clear. And my hope is that school districts follow this data-driven approach that really looks at the science and leaves the politics and the personal preference at the side of the road. I think the state public health and the Department of Health and Human Services has been very clear in following data and making that available on their website and their weekly updates. But I think it is pretty clear that masking is beneficial for schools that have moderate to substantial transmission.

Rick Ganley: But how are you seeing schools navigate all the politics with making these safety decisions based on recommendations from health officials? We do see a lot of pushback from some parents. How do you advise schools about that?

Steven Chapman: It is tough and there are strong opinions. Some of the opinions are not necessarily based on data and based in fact. And so the framework that I've taken when I've talked with schools is getting consensus that we will approach school reopening and COVID from a data-driven approach with kindness and community. We have to do all three things. We have to listen to each other, respect each other's viewpoints. But ultimately, the data is the arbiter of what works, what the risks are and how we pull together. And in many ways, it's just as important how we respond as a school district to this challenge. And so how do we build community? Everything we do needs to be about how we support each other, look out for each other, which is in some ways what schools are all about in the first place.

(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)