Despite Health Inequalities, Deputy Chief of San Mateo Health Says In-Person Schooling is Safe

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As 1117 students opted to return to in-person schooling at M-A this April, members of the community and District Board have continued to debate about safety concerns, especially in regards to marginalized communities that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. 

With the rollout of vaccines, COVID-19 hospitalizations have declined. In San Mateo County only 12 people are in acute care as of March 14, less than half the number from the beginning of the month. 

However, statistics from the San Mateo County Health Department show stark divides across socioeconomic and racial lines. As of March 17, the total number of COVID-19 cases in East Palo Alto was 4280, compared to 1529 in Menlo Park, and only 191 in Atherton. Srija Srinivasan, deputy chief of San Mateo County Health, explained, “Many essential workers and people who live in the most impacted communities live in crowded housing that does not offer the same opportunities to isolate.”

As a result, she said, lower-income communities and populations of color that already faced pre-existing inequities have shouldered the worst of the pandemic. 

This is made worse by the lack of information in often overlooked communities. In an article by the Mercury News, North Fair Oaks’ COVID-19 cases remained at 10 for a few months until it became 551 overnight, a result of a recalculation. In those months, cases were incorrectly attributed to Redwood City and Menlo Park, which the city is nestled between. For largely Latinx communities like North Fair Oaks, which have been devastated by COVID-19, local groups must be able to receive accurate health data to effectively conduct COVID-19 relief and prevention. 

Another divide is seen in vaccination rates. According to San Mateo County Health, 17.6% of East Palo Alto residents have been vaccinated, compared to 35.4% in Menlo Park, and 58.2% in Atherton. Srinivasan said, “I would have to acknowledge that there is likely less trust [of officials] in the communities that have been the least protected than in the communities that have been more protected. We are working with a lot of community partners with deep roots in these communities to try to overcome that distrust, to make vaccines accessible, and to make communication trustworthy.”

As San Mateo has moved to the orange tier, Srinivasan and Patricia Love, Administrator of the San Mateo County Office of Education said it is safe to return to in-person schooling. Love explained, “The conditions have improved. We have confidence that school leaders, with careful planning under the state’s framework, can make sense and can be safe. In East Palo Alto, they have had students on campus. They haven’t been open for traditional school, but they have had pods going on and other opportunities for kids to interact in-person. So this shows we can do this.”

A study shown on the California Department of Health’s website confirms this claim. The study of in-person schooling in North Carolina showed only 32 in-school transmissions among 100,000 students and teachers—significantly less than the community’s transmission rate, which would have resulted in 900 in-school transmissions.

Srinivasan said, “The four-pillar framework and the public health guidance can really offer protection to create a safe school environment. The studies have confirmed what we’ve experienced locally and our experience locally hasn’t veered greatly from what the studies have said.” 

Sheryl Chen is a senior and Editor-in-Chief. She hopes to expand her knowledge on issues pertinent to M-A and the local community. She is also a member of M-A's debate team.

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