Hingham doctor weighs in on back-to-school safety concerns

Feb. 9, 2021 by Carol Britton Meyer

Hingham resident David Del Sesto, D.O., an infectious diseases physician, is offering to meet with Hingham Public Schools teachers and administrators who are interested in learning more about his perspective on the safety of students returning to full in-person learning, based on the most up-to-date data.

"I can answer their questions from an unbiased standpoint -- not as my opinion, but from the data recently released on this subject," Del Sesto -- who has three children in Foster School -- told the Hingham Anchor. "My goal is nothing other than to help students and the overall community by conveying data while at the same time supporting teachers, the superintendent, and the kids."

At last week's coffee with Supt. Paul Austin, Del Sesto noted that the new head of the Center for Disease Control, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said recently that "it's safe to reopen schools. There's been an abundance of data in the past two weeks that shows that teachers don't need to be vaccinated for schools to reopen, and that if mitigating measures are in place -- which the Hingham Public Schools [already have] -- schools can reopen safely."

In response, Supt. of Schools Paul Austin said school officials and the Hingham Education Association will be "going back to the table again and will continue to talk about [these issues]. What's in place is not a done deal and is subject to amendment when we look at the new data."

The Hingham Anchor asked Del Sesto to expand upon what he shared at last week's meeting.

"It's a complex issue," he said. "The medical and infectious disease communities have been waiting on the sidelines for more data to come out, and over the past two weeks there has been a palpable shift."

Del Sesto said he's not acquainted with any HEA members so is not sure what their stance is on the return-to-school issue, but this much is certain: "The data is slanting toward one direction, and if you're approaching this as a public health situation and not from a legal or opinion-based standpoint, you'd have to acknowledge what this recent data is showing."

There are varying opinions about when it's safe to go back to school in the Hingham Public Schools community. "I think everyone has a valid opinion, and the superintendent and other educators are working hard on this issue, but at last week's meeting I didn't hear any discussion about what the Hingham board of health or the school physician have to say," Del Sesto said. "I did hear a lot about [ongoing school official/HEA] negotiations."

The current Memorandum of Agreement with the HEA states that before there can be a full return to in-person learning, the town would need to be in either the "gray" or "green" COVID-19 zone for a minimum of three weeks, with no evidence of school-based transmission. Hingham is now in the medium-risk "yellow" category.

That stipulation was brought up last week by a meeting participant, asking how that part of the agreement could be changed.

At that time, Austin responded, "We will continue to talk and work through these issues to get the kids back to school as quickly as possible, which we all want to do."

In approaching COVID-19 as a public health problem, healthcare professionals are using the most up-to-data. "Homegrown metrics of when to return to school are incongruent with the evolving data," Del Sesto said. "The data is there, and we're trying to meet the fear with medical facts."

Data from a variety of sources, including the CDC, is showing that the rate of COVID-19 transmission in schools "is normally lower than in the overall community," he said. "If everyone in school is wearing a mask and is social distancing, then it's a very low-risk, controlled environment. The teachers are doing a very good job of enforcing hand hygiene, along with other health and safety protocols."

In fact, Del Sesto said, data shows that having students back in school can actually lower COVID-19 rates in the community, because the kids are in school and not in the community, in addition to reinforcement of good public health procedures in the schools.

Del Sesto noted that Walensky has been with Mass General for a number of years and worked a great deal with the coronavirus when it first became a  concern in the United States. "Based on the data she looked at, she determined that the transmission rate in schools is low," he said.

CDC and other data also indicates an increase in mental illness and suicide risk when students are away from in-person learning for a period of time due to a feeling of isolation.

"From the anecdotal data I've seen, I think it's logical to say that in-person learning is far superior to remote," Del Sesto said. "Physician friends of mine in the community and I are all on the same page about the data and the benefits of in-person learning."

When making decisions related to COVID-19, the medical profession tends to err on the side of public health "by looking at the data and deciding if the benefits [of a certain action] outweigh the risks," according to Del Sesto.

While he expects there to more data in the coming months, he believes the general trend will be in the direction that school is a safe place for students. "There is little if any data indicating persistent outbreaks in schools if all the [health and safety] protocols are met," Del Sesto said. "Let's take advantage of all the resources available and the different talents in this town to get through this," he said.

When asked to comment, Hingham Executive Health Officer Susan Sarni declined to do so.

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