‘Be more scientific’: Forum experts weigh in on criteria for reopening San Diego Unified schools

A panel of experts discusses ways to reopen public schools during a Nov. 19 forum online.
(Elisabeth Frausto )

Several local experts discussed COVID-19 prevention, coronavirus testing plans and other considerations for reopening public schools in a webinar attended by several San Diego Unified School District board members, current and future City Council members, and more than 200 parents and other community members.

The “Science-Based School Reopening Forum” on Nov. 19 was moderated by Dawniel Stewart, a La Jolla resident, childbirth educator and community activist, and Lisa Delano-Wood, a Scripps Ranch resident and an associate professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego. The event aimed to “bring some of the greatest minds in infectious disease, public health, virology, pediatrics, clinical psychology and education planning directly to all of us who are concerned educators and parents here in San Diego County,” Delano-Wood said.

Stewart and Delano-Wood, each of whom has children in San Diego Unified, are members of the SDUSD Parent Coalition, a group “concerned about the way in which we return to learn, and we want to make sure that’s done safely using the science,” Stewart said. “We’re working to hold our elected [officials] accountable in this major endeavor.”

SDUSD has been in online instruction since the spring, except for limited in-person support sessions for some students.

With San Diego County in the state’s purple tier, the most restrictive level of coronavirus prevention measures, Delano-Wood asked Dr. Howard Taras, the district’s in-house physician, what community members can do to help curb infection rates.

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“We have well more than seven daily new cases [of coronavirus] per 100,000 people,” Taras said, adding that the county is “way ahead” of others in numbers of people tested.

“How do we get out of it? Masks, masks, masks,” he said. “That would be the first three answers.” He said further measures include holding fewer gatherings, such as for Thanksgiving dinner, and more testing.

Reducing the spread of the virus and being able to reopen school campuses safely also is a matter of listening to science, according to Dr. Robert “Chip” Schooley, an infectious-disease specialist at UCSD who helps run the university’s “Return to Learn” program, which implements policies for getting UCSD students back on campus without viral outbreaks.

“Education, science, knowledge has been debased over and over again,” Schooley said. He urged everyone to consider the source of information.

“One of the things we’re going to pay more attention to as we try to get back to opening more businesses and doing things we really want to do is to be more scientific,” he said.

Natasha Martin, an associate professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health at UCSD, said the Return to Learn program is a “multipronged strategy of COVID prevention where we try to reduce the risk of transmission through masking, social distancing, ventilation and structural configurations” for campus housing and classrooms.

Another pillar of the program is viral detection via widespread testing of symptomatic and asymptomatic community members.

Martin said the program also is monitoring the wastewater out of buildings on campus, “and if one of those samples is positive for COVID, then we can do a testing sweep and offer the residents of those buildings or the people who work in those buildings testing to identify infections.”

Another pillar is public health intervention, which involves quarantining and contact tracing of infected people to prevent the risk of spread, Martin said.

All the pillars work together “with quite good success,” she said.

Since Oct. 1, she said, UCSD has had 9,000 students living on campus and 12,000 more living off campus, with about 5,000 of those going onto the campus for in-person classes. Of all those students, Martin said, there have been only 25 infections among the on-campus students and 50 among the off-campus students.

Natasha Martin said having multiple protocols in place is effective in reducing coronavirus risk.
Natasha Martin, an associate professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health at UCSD, said having multiple protocols in place, such as testing, measures to prevent coronavirus transmission and isolating infected individuals, is effective in reducing risk.

“The important thing to note,” Martin said, “is none of these infections have come from classroom activities or research activities on campus.”

The infections are occurring when students gather with their families or friends off campus, she said.

San Diego Unified has worked with UCSD to formulate the district’s reopening guidelines, which currently call for elementary school students to return to campuses for part-time in-person instruction on Jan. 4 and middle and high school students to do so Jan. 25.

Taras said mitigating transmission of the virus through aerosols — emitted through talking and laughing — involves masking everyone and making sure “the ventilation is excellent.”

“The virus does not seem to be transmitted … through common surfaces,” Taras said, though “we are still taking precautions in schools to prevent that spread” through surface disinfection.

As the community infection rate increases, he said, “testing becomes exponentially more important” to prevent asymptomatic people from spreading the virus further.

“We know that many individuals can be totally asymptomatic and never develop symptoms, and even for those individuals who are symptomatic, we know that they are most transmissible before they develop symptoms,” Martin said.

A testing program has to be able to catch people before they are symptomatic to curb their risk of transmitting to others, she said.

“If we test every two weeks, we can prevent 75 to 85 percent of infections. We are improving our ability to detect infections and prevent ongoing transmission through asymptomatic testing,” Martin said.

Fred Wu, chief medical officer for Scripps Health Inpatient Providers, said a recent program using less-invasive coronavirus tests from the EXCITE lab at UCSD and implemented in local private schools is a “live experiment.” The amount of testing at each school “increased dramatically this week” due to recent spikes in infections countywide.

A UC San Diego lab has created a program to offer low-cost, rapid coronavirus tests to local schools and organizations, and reopened private schools in La Jolla are in varying phases of participation, hoping to control the spread of COVID-19 among their students and staff.

Wu said such a testing program of asymptomatic people can offer teachers more confidence “that policies are effective.”

San Diego Unified teachers union President Kisha Borden said the district’s 6,000 educators, many of whom are parents themselves, are in varying stages of coping with the pressures of online teaching in a pandemic.

“We want schools to open cautiously and in phases,” Borden said. “As educators, we always consider the details,” such as ventilation, masks and how to support younger students in handwashing and other safety protocols.

However, educators realize “we don’t have the expertise to make decisions” about reopening, Borden said, and the union is looking to the UCSD experts to “guide us in our decision-making about reopening of schools.”

Martin said a school reopening plan needs “an adaptive approach — to understand that we will be continually seeing the data, evaluating the data and changing our approach as we go so we can most effectively address the situation.”

She said she hopes San Diego Unified will see what UCSD has seen, that “classrooms are low-risk for transmission and that ... mitigation efforts you put in place are able to reduce that risk.”

Taras said he agrees that “schools can be very, very safe, even when there is high transmission rates in the community.” ◆