GUEST EDITORIAL: Schools must remain wary of COVID threat

Altoona Mirror/AP

For Pennsylvania school administrators and boards of education, this summer will present a major challenge on the health front related to, but also different from, what they were forced to contemplate during the darkest months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That formidable challenge will be the need to devise good strategies for trying to ensure their districts’ medical health from the perspective of “routine” infectious diseases such as the common cold, flu and gastrointestinal upsets.

While most of calendar year 2020, as well as the first months of 2021, were a nightmare as school officials sought the best means for navigating COVID-19’s threat, unfortunately the educational scene at the start of the 2021-22 school calendar will not be much simpler to navigate, because of the many virus uncertainties that will continue to exist.

More:Another COVID side effect: Many kids head to summer school

More:Pa. Department of Education updates guidance to allow more in-person learning

Tied to that, a major unknown will continue to be whether any of the COVID-19 variants that have been identified around the world will show up in their communities and districts.

Even if that doesn’t happen here, the situation here likely will continue to be precarious, because of the rate of COVID-19 infections and deaths that this region has experienced since early 2020 and the fact that COVID-19 still is “out there.”

Still, there is some upbeat news now from what otherwise has been a horrific scenario of coronavirus illness and death, as well as unrelenting concern about the path that the future might take.

A headline in the June 2 Wall Street Journal — “Chickenpox, strep throat and other childhood ills drop in COVID-19 era” — has provided a hint about what school officials should be thinking about this summer.

One important center of thought ought to be whether — or to what degree — pandemic-related safety measures such as masks should be recommended or required for students during the traditional cold and flu months, going forward, and under what circumstances.

Also, how extensively and in what circumstances should social-distancing measures remain in place, if at all?

Parts of several paragraphs from the Journal article are relevant for discussion in every school system in Pennsylvania, as well as in every other state. They are:

“The virtual disappearance of the flu has been well-documented, with cases down 99%or more in the U.S., Europe and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere over the winter,” apparently due to coronavirus safety measures that have been in place.

“Chickenpox cases in the U.S. this year have fallen by more than two-thirds from pre-pandemic levels.”

“Data outside the U.S. show the decline is even steeper for another “bug,” the rotavirus, a common cause of diarrhea and vomiting in small children.”

“Doctors say that as countries with widespread COVID-19 vaccination, including the U.S., get back to normal, people would be well-advised to keep up some of the practices they have adopted — even if pandemic weariness makes them less eager to take that advice.”

According to the Journal’s report, doctors believe that disinfecting surfaces and cleaning hands with soap or alcohol sanitizers have contributed to the precipitous decline in common infectious diseases.

The nation’s schools are a logical place for such preventive steps to continue, and the benefits of that could spill over to home environments.

This summer, school leaders need to give serious thought to this important consideration, as they are preparing for students’ return in late August or early September.

— From the Altoona Mirror.