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UCSD epidemiologist discusses the science behind reopening San Diego County schools

This week, News 8 is speaking with a variety of experts for a discussion about kids and COVID-19, all through the lens of science.

SAN DIEGO — As the new school year gets underway online for many San Diego County districts, News 8 wanted to take a look at the decisions being made when it comes to reopening schools.

This week, News 8 is speaking with a variety of experts for a discussion about kids and COVID-19, all through the lens of science.

News 8’s Shannon Handy spoke with Dr. Rebecca Fielding-Miller, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at UCSD, about the work she's doing with county officials and her thoughts on schools potentially reopening in two weeks.

What is it that you're working on right now as it relates to kids and COVID-19?

“One of the things we're trying to figure out is how do you keep schools open safely," said Fielding-Miller. "That's the million-dollar question. We are trying out a couple different strategies for sort of developing an early alert system for elementary schools and childcare sites and then figuring out what testing and contact tracing might look like after that."

"Other people are doing work on statistical modeling to understand how to put resources in place in the best way possible," said Fielding-Miller. "Other people are working on developing vaccines and testing kits, and it really has been all about building teams of experts who can understand the problem from as many directions as possible.”

What's your perspective on kids returning to the classroom?

"When I think about kids going into the classroom or daycare, I prioritize more fresh air over less fresh air. So, my own daughter is at an outdoor daycare, which I feel really good about that," said Fielding-Miller. "I prioritize fewer kids, fewer people over more people. So, the smaller the cohort the better because there's less opportunity to spread and you can think about it as fewer connections. So, every kid lives in a household and every kid represents five, six, seven connections.

I also think younger is safer than older and that's nationally, and in San Diego too. We see kids [ages] 0 to 9 have a much lower case rate than kids 10-19.

I wish I could say 'yes, it's safe' or 'no, it's not safe' but I can tell you those are the factors that I think about when evaluating any situation.”

How important are numbers and science when it comes to combating this thing?

“You can look at the numbers," said Fielding-Miller. "The number of new cases per day was really steady. We opened up bars, [then] it shot up. We closed bars and gyms, [then] it leveled and it started coming down. It's working and it would be less than prudent to say 'this is working, numbers are coming down, let's stop doing it.' If we want schools to stay open safely, we need to remember schools do not exist independently. Schools exist in a city, in a county that also has gyms, hair salons and restaurants. Schools cannot stay open in isolation. They can only stay open if cases are down and steady in the rest of the county consistently. A lot of pressure has been put on schools and parents and teachers to keep numbers down. It really is a community-wide effort to keep schools open.”

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