'It comes down to risk': Billings Clinic specialist says school reopenings not black and white

Safely Back to School
Dr. Neil Ku
Posted at 5:20 PM, Aug 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-22 21:34:04-04

BILLINGS — After 160 days of shutdown, Billings School District 2 will reopen to more than 14,000 students Monday. A number of mitigation strategies will make it look very different than the pre-COVID world, but are they enough, especially in high traffic areas like hallways?

"We can try to stagger classes so the density of the number of students going through hallways would be not as great," said Dr. Neil Ku, Billings Clinic's chief infectious disease specialist. "There will probably be some required chaperoning. The chaperone is going to have to be there to keep things moving so the students won't stop and start congregating."

Ku says those social acts of hallway life are the real dangers.

"Is it likely that someone who is sick walking past you means you will get it? No. It's really getting up close with your friends in close density - that's the thing we're trying to modify."

All kids and staff will be required to wear masks inside school buildings, but that's very difficult in some classes, like choir, and impossible in others, like band.

"In this situation, certainly try to spread out the musicians and singers as far apart as possible," Ku said. "There's been some discussion about individual plexiglass barriers with each other. We even entertained the idea of, can we do it outside? Certainly that's an option - you have way more space and you are able to do a little bit more. But of course, then that affects the experience. You're not going to hear very well. Having a barrier, you're just blocking the sound as well as the droplets, so there is a trade-off."

Sports bring up the same questions. COVID-19 is mainly spread through respiratory droplets, which are significantly more prevalent on the field or court than every-day life.

"The truth of the matter is - I don't think there's any great way we can do it," Ku said. "It comes down to the risk we're willing to take in order to participate in sports. Certainly, it's easy for me to say no, you shouldn't do it. But I understand that many of these students participate in these extracurricular activities for a variety of reasons and also play a role for enrollment into colleges, so I try to offer the best mitigation strategies there are. And sometimes, there aren't."

There is no safe - only safer. That's what most arguments come down to in this post-COVID world. For Dr. Ku, the question is if schools should reopen can't be thought of in black and white.

"It's easy to say if we're trying to prevent an outbreak, we should keep the schools closed," he said, "but I think we have to weigh the risk and benefits of doing that. Public schools offer many other services to children that are not readily available at home. We have to recognize that there are going to be risks - it's not going to be perfect - but the community has to contribute to keep the schools as safe as possible."

School District 2 will re-open to in-person instruction Monday. The 2,300+ students who have chosen to stay with remote-learning begin Friday, Aug. 28, with a virtual meet and greet, and classes start Aug. 31.