Scientific Coalition presents plan to reopen private elementary, high schools

By John McPhaul

Daniel Colón Ramos, co-president of the Puerto Rico Scientific Coalition, announced on Sunday the organization’s recommendations on plans to open private elementary and high schools on the island.

“The consensus of the Puerto Rico Scientific Coalition is that children should be considered one of the vulnerable populations most affected by the pandemic,” Colón Ramos said in a written statement. “We recognize that the health of children is also affected by SARS CoV-2, but even beyond infections, social disruptions due to the pandemic have disproportionately affected this part of our demographics.”

The group of scientists from various disciplines that make up the coalition stated that there is consensus in the scientific community that the virtual education modules implemented during the pandemic are suboptimal, and that the pandemic has adversely affected the academic achievement of children and their development. It is recognized that even before the pandemic there were disparities in access to educational resources in Puerto Rico, and that the pandemic has exacerbated these disparities in the context of virtual education, internet access, and the care that children need for their development.

“We recommend science-based public policy decisions focused on benefiting this population in areas where they have been most affected, including their education, mental health and human development,” said coalition member Carmen Zorrilla. “As a society, we cannot continue conversations about reopening that benefit the adult population without having a serious, data-driven conversation about public reopening policies that benefit the development of our children.”

Therefore, the coalition said, it should be a priority to establish the conditions for the return of face-to-face classes. It should be understood that the coalition does not advocate a return to face-to-face classes at any cost, but rather the prioritization of resources for the implementation of science-based strategies that ensure a safe return to face-to-face classes in the context of the pandemic.

Coalition members participated in the preparation of the document published by the island Department of Health entitled “Protocol for the Surveillance of COVID-19” in Puerto Rico’s education sector in response to and preparation for the opening of schools, and the coalition also discussed the document with members of the department.

“Our consensus is that the school opening protocols set out in this document prepared by the Department of Health are, in accordance with the scientific and health information that we have in February 2021, detailed and complete,” Colón Ramos said.

The coalition recommends that the implementation of the opening protocol should be considered a pilot project to be closely monitored as the scientific and health information changes. They also emphasize that the protocol will only be as effective as its implementation.

The coalition urges that the development and implementation of the protocols be considered an interagency collaboration between the departments of Health and Education with their challenges, but also their opportunities to establish close working relationships that persist even beyond the pandemic, to disease monitoring, such as with influenza. The coalition recommends the creation of an interagency working group, with representatives from both departments, to facilitate agile communication with the shared goal of a safe reopening for schools in Puerto Rico.

“We present in this report additional and detailed recommendations to strengthen the protocols already presented. It is critical in the strategy to reopen the monitoring systems through the BioPortal of the Department of Health, the integration of data and the use of tests to aggressively and consistently monitor possible infections in schools, especially in asymptomatic but contagious patients,” Zorrilla said. “Our recommendations offer strategies on how to collaboratively implement these protocols for the benefit of the youth and Puerto Rican society. As the pandemic and the implementation of the protocols develop, the Puerto Rico Scientific Coalition will issue additional recommendations to [La Fortaleza], the Department of Health, the Department of Education, and Puerto Rican society.”

“The general community, parents, teachers, educators, school support staff, and individuals interested in the well being of the school population must be considered partners in the shared aspiration of a safe reopening for our children and our society,” she added. “There should be communication plans, led by the Department of Health and the Department of Education, that guide the behavior of the entire Puerto Rican society.”

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