The pandemic caused significant disruptions across early childhood education settings, from the loss of social interaction between children at a critical age to teacher burnout. It also left many parents and caregivers, teachers, and naturally curious children with questions about what the virus was and how to approach school closures. ParentCorps introduced the “Being a Healthy Hero” resource during the height of the pandemic to help support those conversations, assisting in explaining the virus in child-friendly language, validating feelings, and practicing prevention strategies (the resource is available here to school staff on the ParentCorps Portal).
A few months into another school year, new questions are arising about what to expect from the continued pandemic. We sat down for a Q&A with Dr. Anna Bershteyn, assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Health, to learn more. Dr. Bershteyn specializes in modeling to inform disease control and prevention. She is also the mother of a 5 year old daughter and 10 year old son, making this topic even more relevant in her daily life. Here is the expertise she shared.
What can we expect from COVID the rest of the school year? You have noted we are no longer seeing defined variant waves.
Based on where we are now within the Omicron so-called “swarm of variants,” we're seeing that transmission is relatively consistent. No big spikes and no breaks in transmission. As the weather gets colder and people travel more for holidays we may see an increase, but it's not looking like it's going to be these many fold ups and downs that we've seen before. We could get our next variant, the Pi variant, at any time. Each variant is a little bit of a different game. Those original lineages had these big spikes and big troughs, but Omicron is more consistent. It could be a completely different regime with the Pi variant if it comes this year.
So right now, expect this not catastrophic but still unacceptably high level of burden from COVID, and then wait and see what the next variable will hold.
Are there strategies to reduce the spread of COVID and maintain safe operations in schools? Is there anything kids can do to help?
Ten percent of deaths are still due to COVID. So you can't forget about COVID but it's also constant without breaks where you can't put your life on hold. It's all about finding that balance in a way that is sustainable. We really want to emphasize the kinds of mitigations that don't interfere with kids' day-to-day lives and socialization and education.
“We really want to emphasize the kinds of mitigations that don't interfere with kids' day-to-day lives and socialization and education.”
Two big ones are vaccination and air filtration/circulation in buildings. They help kids be healthy. Cleaner air is actually good for cognitive development and attention. Cleaner air helps people feel better, they learn better, they make better choices. It’s a no brainer. Maybe now is a good time to start investing in more stable infrastructure with HVAC systems that centrally filter the air at a high quality in schools. That's a no regrets thing. For some of the steps that are a little bit more interfering with day-to-day life, like masking, I think it's the right choice to leave that up to families and people's particular circumstances.
How would you compare the safety of in-person learning now versus 2020?
It’s about 10 to 100 times safer because we have tools to prevent severe illness. The mRNA vaccines reduce risk of severe disease by something like a factor of 10. And then if you are vulnerable and you get infected, the treatments like Paxlovid give you about another factor of 10. So if you use both, you can multiply 10 and 10 together and be about 100 times safer.
The pandemic has been devastating for early childhood education, with major drops in enrollment, unimaginable stress for leaders and educators resulting in massive staff turnover, and more. What’s your message for early childhood educators continuing to serve children and families at this stage of the pandemic?
The kids have suffered learning loss and in pretty much any sector that's touched by COVID, there's just so much burnout right now. I think everyone is just trying to balance recovery and it's kind of incumbent on all of us to show some patience and gratitude.
“I think everyone is just trying to balance recovery and it's kind of incumbent on all of us to show some patience and gratitude.”
I work on COVID but I'm a mathematical modeler and get to sit at a computer in the safety of my office most of the time. My message right now is to just be kind and gentle to yourself and take care of yourself.
Why is it important to have a shared understanding of the pandemic in our communities, whether that’s at home, at school, or at work?
Lots of people have lost loved ones or income or life experiences. I think sometimes there's a desire to blame somebody, whether it's pointing the finger at leadership, the health department, or something else. The fact is, this pandemic came and hopefully we took the path to minimize the total harm as best we could. At some point there's really nobody you can blame other than just the fact that we live in modern times of air travel and pandemics spread quickly.
In general, it's this bad thing that happened to everyone. It's not a time to blame, but it's a time to come together and just try to make the best choices that we can.
Can you speak to the greater impact that COVID has had on families living in multigenerational housing versus other populations?
With COVID in particular, the risks just skyrocket with older age. It puts people in a really tough position in a multigenerational home because you can't necessarily isolate. Nowadays, we have treatment options and those should be prioritized to older individuals or people with risk factors. I actually don't live under the same roof as my parents who are 70, but they live across the street. I would just make sure to have all the medical safety nets in place. Make sure everyone is vaccinated and they've talked to their doctors in advance to figure out their plan. With vaccines and treatment, the risk to their health is much lower.
Can you talk about why we should be getting the latest COVID boosters and staying vaccinated, especially with the trifecta of COVID, the flu, and RSV this year?
With COVID and the flu, vaccines are the first safety net. They’re great because when you do get sick, there's nothing you need to do. You can have a double safety net by then also going and getting an antiviral. It's a must for people at high risk, and for most anyone it'll get you feeling better sooner.
With COVID, there’s been a lot of chatter about if the boosters work. The evidence shows unequivocally that boosters are great. No matter if you get the bivalent or the monovalent booster, it will help. It turned out that the bivalent is only a bit better than the monovalent, but both are great.
You can also get the flu and COVID vaccines at the same time. My five year old daughter is afraid of needles, so I just did the COVID booster and the flu vaccine on the same day since going twice was going to be twice as hard.
How do we get people with vaccine hesitancy to actually get those vaccines?
For people who have some belief that is stopping them from getting a vaccine, there are proven methods to help them overcome their vaccine hesitancy. For a lot of them, it’s just about having a really caring and nonjudgmental conversation where both sides bring curiosity. It’s time consuming, but you can go online together and look at the ingredients of the vaccine and other information together.
The other piece is more nudges. I had a neighbor who wanted to get the vaccine in the early days when you had to sign up for these mass vaccination sites. My husband went with her and they ended up standing out in the freezing cold for hours until middle of the night in an unsafe area. When they finally handed out the vaccination forms, there was no Spanish version. It’s just these barriers that we put in front of people. So having no insurance requirements, no documentation requirements, no appointment needed, those kinds of things make it that much easier.
How are you feeling about how things are currently going?
Maybe because the latest variants have been constant instead of coming in waves, I feel like things have been a little bit stable. I feel like for the first time I'm not glued to the news. It's just a thing that I can get my head around and live my life. We finally can focus a bit more on losing the pandemic pounds, recovering from Zoom schooling, and all of that. We finally get to pick up where we left off.
Molly Sequin is a ParentCorps Communications Specialist.