Pottstown-area school and health officials are working to inform parents what they should do to help make the return to in-person learning as safe as possible.
POTTSTOWN As COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and misinformation complicate planning for a return to in-person learning next month, an online town hall Thursday aimed to clear the air and let parents know what they need to know.
Hosted by former Pottstown schools superintendent Jeff Sparagana, who is also a board member of the Pottstown Area Health and Wellness Foundation, the informational session featured three experts to answer questions, outline health impacts and protocols in place for schools, child care and early learning centers.
The panelists were:
As most parents with children in school know, numerous vaccines, including chickenpox, meningitis, measles, mumps, rubella and polio are all required for children to register for school.
However, a COVID-19 vaccine is not required, although it is strongly recommended for children 12 and older. Only the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for children 12 to 18 and a parent or guardian must be present for it to be administered to that age group, said Spengler.
A vaccine for children under 12 is not available yet but is being researched. It should be available once the study of kids ages 6 to 12 is completed, likely in early to mid-winter months, Spengler said.
Responding to a question about vaccine side-effects and long-term effects, Spengler said "the vast majority of vaccine side effects occur in the first 24 to 48 hours. This gives experts reassurance, if we were going to see side effects or complications, we would have seen it by now."
Spengler added, "a lot of experts are saying you have two choices. You get the vaccine or get the disease in the next couple of years." It's safer to get the vaccine, she said, given that the long-term impacts of having COVID-19 are not being documented.
Information on vaccines posted at the end of Thursday's Town Hall meeting.
Vaccines can be administered during a regular well-visit with your health care provider, at Community Health and Dental in the Coventry Mall, and, for those in seventh grade and older, at the CVS in Collegeville, Spengler said.
"This is most definitely the best time for parents to schedule an appointment for children to get the vaccine if they are 12 or older," because a second dose is required three weeks later, said Sparagana. "Then they'll be ready for school."
"The more things we do to mitigate the virus in the community, the better off the schools will be," Spengler said.
"How we choose to mitigate this virus has an impact in our schools," Spengler said. "So how we respond as adults will determine" if schools stay open.
That includes adults getting vaccinated, particularly now that the much more contagious "delta variant" of the virus is on the rise, she said.
"The delta variant in COVID-19 is in Montgomery County. It's here," said Spengler.
She could not yet say if any students have had it, "but we do know that schools mimic our community. If it's here, it's likely circulating among the kids as well."
It is too soon to say, Perry-Malloy said, if the rise of the delta variant will result in yet another shut-down of schools.
"As of now, everything is changing on a daily basis," she said.
"We need to do all that we can to make sure everyone's ready, and if children older than 12, that they get vaccinated," Sparagana said.
In daycare and early education centers, where all children are too young to be vaccinated, the focus has been on re-thinking how children are grouped together at meals, wearing masks and lots, and lots of hand-washing, said Seeley.
Experts are strongly urging that children 2 to 6 years old wear masks while in child care or at an early learning center. "Data from the CDC supports the use of masks," she said.
Hundreds of people lined up outside Pottstown Middle School in March to get COVID-19 vaccine shots.
"It's amazing to see how mask-wearing and all the things we've talked about has reduced illness at early childhood centers," Seeley said.
That said, Seeley also noted that most early childhood centers are trying to reduce mask-wearing requirements by taking other measures to ensure safety.
"We're really looking for ways for children not to be masked," she said, noting they don't wear masks outside. "We've found lots of ways to keep children at a safe distance so they do not have to wear masks."
As for older children, Sparagana said that the CDC has indicated that students who have been vaccinated do not need to wear a mask in school unless they are on a school bus.
However, Perry-Malloy added that the schools will follow the guidance issued by the Montgomery County Health Department regarding masks, so it may change if cases continue to rise.
And while teachers in the Pottstown School District are not required to be vaccinated, most of them already are, Perry-Malloy said.
Also, once school starts, parents can sign up to have "assurance testing" conducted once a week on their child, as a way to detect any spread of the virus.
If a child or teacher in a particular classroom is found to have COVID-19, that person must quarantine, but the entire classroom will not be quarantined, she said.
Only those who have been in close contact with the infected person will be required to quarantine. An email will be sent home to parents with children in that classroom, but not to the whole school, said Perry-Malloy.
Spengler said children who contract the disease, "usually get a mild form of the illness, but not the case for every child. Some get MISC complications, which is a multi-inflammatory condition.
Jeff Sparagana is the former superintendent in the Pottstown School District.
Some children, although extremely rare, get "long-haul" impacts, like memory loss, from COVID-19, she said.
And it's important to remember, Sparagana said, that prevention is about more than the individual, who may only have mild affects, but about preventing the spread, especially to those more vulnerable.
"We're all in this together," Sparagana said.
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