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School, health leaders call for continued vigilance against COVID-19 as schools begin to reopen

swiss cheese covid

The Swiss cheese model of COVID-19 defense demonstrates how every layer of protection against the virus helps to keep it from spreading.

Wednesday marks an achievement for Kern County: It's the first day that all schools will be able to fully open their campuses to students since they were shuttered by the state in March. But community leaders warn that now is not the time to drop our guard against the pandemic that shuttered schools in the first place.

Kern County Public Health Services Director Matt Constantine calls the county's move into the red tier that allows school openings "recognition of all the hard work our community has put in."

"It means that all those preventative efforts have worked: not seeing our family and friends, wearing masks in 100-degree heat," he said.

Constantine says the community has to continue on that path, not just so it won't slip back into the more restrictive purple tier the county just left but also so that it can move into the less restrictive orange and then yellow tiers. The county hasn't met its goal; it's just starting, he says. 

"It’s on the schools, teachers and parents, to make sure it goes well," Constantine said. "I’m hopeful with preventative measures that we can do this safely."

Part of his optimism comes from schools that have already opened or partially reopened in Kern County. With few exceptions, most private schools or school districts in Kern County already have students on campus.

But Wednesday marks a broad expansion of who is coming on campus. Schools that already have county waivers for K-6 such as St. Francis and Our Lady of Perpetual Help will be welcoming seventh and eighth graders. Private high schools such as Bakersfield Christian and Garces Memorial will open fully for the first time. And larger public school districts that never obtained a waiver, such as Rosedale Union, plan to be bring all their general education students who are willing onto campus.

The Kern County Superintendent of Schools worked with local districts on messaging to families returning to campus.

One potent image they've landed on is a 30-year-old model for risk management known as the "Swiss Cheese Model." A single slice of Swiss cheese is like many of the weapons a community has to defend itself against an outbreak of COVID-19. Physical distancing, masks, hand washing, ventilation, disinfection and contact tracing each have their own weaknesses, or "holes." But together, they become almost impossible to penetrate — just as each additional layer of Swiss cheese makes it tougher to find a weak spot. 

"No one safety measure will prevent the spread of COVID-19, but with strict adherence and your cooperation, we have a tremendous opportunity to mitigate the virus and prevent outbreaks and potential closures," Rosedale Union School District Superintendent Sue Lemon sent in a letter to parents along with a Swiss cheese graphic.

What happens inside classroom walls is regulated by strict guidelines from the California Department of Public Health: masking, cleaning and sanitizing and social distancing. But the Kern County Superintendent of Schools guidance also points out that what happens outside the classrooms matters.

"Just as schools will use multiple layers to ensure safety, the general community can do the same by doing the things that we have been advised to do over and over to ensure our community as a whole (and our schools as an extension) is as safe as possible (masking, distancing, washing hands, avoiding gatherings to the extent possible, etc.)," the guidance states.

Dr. Poornima Kunani, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente, is more explicit.

"I want families to please also follow those guidelines outside of the district and outside of the campus, so that the schools can remain open," she said.

For instance, Kunani sees teens clustering in small groups, unmasked, around town. She's afraid some families returning to campus will interpret what happens there as mere "school rules."

"You have to do the same things everywhere," she said.

Besides the guidance that schools are offering, Kunani is also offering a few other words of professional medical advice for parents sending their students off for their first days of in-person school.

She recommends making sure students are sent off to school properly fed and hydrated. That might be evergreen advice from a pediatrician, but she says it is especially important now so that students aren't constantly having to take off their masks for a snack or a sip of water. Keeping a mask on at all times, especially in the restroom, is important.

"They’re not the best-ventilated places," she said.

She says that it's become especially important now for families to keep students home when they're sick, even though it can be tough on a work schedule.

"Don’t give Tylenol and send your kid to school," she said. "That’s not fair to anyone."

She says that some of the guidelines can be uncomfortable or represent real sacrifices, but it's important for the greater good.