As an epidemiologist and professor who has been teaching in the Global Public Health program at Dominican University of California since 2015 and as the mother of two young school-aged children learning from home via Zoom for most of the pandemic, Dr. Michaela George is an advocate for safe in-person learning. She now has evidence to support public health advice for the reopening of schools.
Dr. George was part of a recent study that confirms it is possible to minimize COVID-19 transmissions in in-person learning settings with cohesive mitigation strategies. The peer-reviewed published study – done in partnership with Marin County Health and Human Services and the Marin County Office of Education – is entitled “Phased Return of Students to 77 Transitional Kindergarten-8th Grade Schools With Cohesive Mitigation Strategies Serving as Protective Factors Against the Increase of COVID-19 Cases in Marin County – Sept. 2020 to Jan. 2021”
“We wanted to provide empirical evidence that safety protocols actually work because the next infectious disease is always around the corner. Whether it’s Delta or Omicron or something else, we showed that following the advice of our public health officers is important and will effectively mitigate risk. They know what we are doing,’ ” Dr. George says. “If you follow their advice, you can stay safe.”
The 21-week study concluded that strict adherence to proper hand hygiene, physical distancing, and masking by students and staff while on school grounds kept in-school transmission to a minimum. While there is no clear causal correlation between the increasing phased return of students to in-person school and the decrease in countywide COVID-19 cases in Marin County, these findings revealed that schools were capable of safely resuming operations by following public health orders and recommendations.
Furthermore, the increasing percentage of students returning to in-person school did not drive an increased COVID-19 case rate in the community. On the contrary, the analysis revealed that there was a drop in countywide COVID-19 cases as the phased student return percentage increased.
The study and Dr. George's explanation of it has attracted interest from multiple media outlets beginning with the Marin Independent Journal and including Yahoo News, the San Jose Mercury News, CalMatters, and the Times-Herald in Vallejo. KGO-TV ABC7 in San Francisco also aired a segment on Dr. George and the study in its newscasts.
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“This evidence is supposed to inspire safe health behavior because, especially with COVID, a lot of these behaviors – mask wearing in particular – have been politicalized,” Dr. George says. “While public health uses empirical evidence to drive these recommendations, politics can get in the way and affect behaviors in different ways.”
Dr. George was asked to participate in the research after Rochelle Ereman, an adjunct professor in GPH in the School of Health and Natural Sciences, recruited her to be an academic advisor to a Marin HHS intern, Dr. Shayne Paff, a graduate student working on completing her master’s thesis. Discussions related to that topic led to the inspiration of a study based on a MMWR report that analyzed COVID-19 protocols and reopening schools in the Midwest.
“After reading that paper, we realized that we had far more data and could provide even more evidence that opening schools could be safe,” Dr. George says.
Utilizing partnerships and relationships with Marin HHS and Marin County Office of Education, Dr. George collaborated on the project. Their goal was to obtain evidence to see if students, teachers, and staff could safely return to school if all Marin County COVID-19 safety protocols were followed. The study was extended to what impact school re-openings would have on the community in general.
Dr. George helped oversee the research and Dominican financially supported the publication of the paper in the peer-reviewed journal Cureus, Inc. Based in San Francisco, Cureus leverages the power of an online, crowdsourced community platform to share and promote peer-reviewed medical knowledge around the world.
“This is not complicated statistics. It’s a very simple descriptive analysis that we really wanted to make accessible to our community,” Dr. George says. “We wanted to very plainly state that these protocols if followed will keep you safe and get kids back in school.”
Photo above of Global Public Health professor Michaela George (left) being interviewed by KGO-TV ABC7 reporter Liz Kreutz.