From ‘pandemic pods’ to mask breaks: What Johns Hopkins experts say about back to school

Parents who want their children to have more social engagement in the upcoming school year are looking for all kinds of ways to accomplish that — whether it’s so-called “pandemic bubbles” outside of school or enrolling their children in child care programs at schools.

Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said whether it’s a school that has decided to open or a neighborhood-organized “pandemic pod” that’s formed, the number of children and instructors in any grouping should be kept low.

“What that will achieve is that if one of those people is infected, we will then know who was exposed,” Nuzzo said.

Schools are going to have to plan for prevention and how they will communicate with staff and parents if a COVID-19 case is reported, Nuzzo said.

If there is a reported case of COVID-19, and the numbers of students in any given cohort are limited, “hopefully, they won’t have to close the entire school unless they find that the infection has spread beyond that cohort,” Nuzzo said.

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Asked if schools could rely on testing as a way to increase safety against the spread of the coronavirus, Nuzzo took a cautionary stance.

“I think regardless of how we use tests, we absolutely still need to maintain the safety protocols —the distance, and the masks and other things, because no test is perfect and there will be incorrect answers generated by these tests,” she said.

During the webcast, Dr. Josh Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, asked about the use of “mask breaks” for kids, which are dedicated times when they could remove masks whether at recess or in hallways at school.

Dr. Annette Anderson, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, said anecdotal evidence from Israel of the spread of the coronavirus — perhaps connected to mask breaks — suggested the practice may not be advisable.

Instead, Anderson said, “I think we have to help our young people to know how to keep their masks on.”

But Anderson acknowledged the difficulty of having young children go for seven to eight hours a day with their masks on.

She suggested offering some kind of incentives to encourage kids to resist the urge to take their masks off, “because it’s part of the safety protocol” to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

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