Back-to-school reopening plans have few details on how many COVID-19 cases would close schools

Even as they recommended working to reopen schools in-person, the nation’s science academies warned: “It is likely that someone in the school community will contract COVID-19.” 

But largely missing from the reopening protocols at states and schools around the nation are concrete plans for what administrators are to do when coronavirus infections enter a school.

The prospect of reopening school in the fall is already looking less likely in much of the nation. Confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have skyrocketed to nearly 3.6 million, and more than half of states have paused or scaled back efforts to reopen their economies. A growing number of school districts, including Los Angeles, the second-largest in the U.S., have decided to start the fall semester online. Other districts are pushing back their start dates.

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But many still plan to hold in-person classes. They’re releasing plans that include implementing social distancing, closing school buildings to visitors and, in some cases, splitting students into groups that attend school on some days and study from home on others. 

How a school would handle multiple coronavirus cases across the building, and how many infected students or teachers would raise alarms, are details often left up to parents to guess. Typical plans include only references to “case-by-case” decisions.

USA TODAY Network reporters reviewed 35 schools’ reopening plans. Most plans didn’t include specifics on decisions that would lead to closing school buildings and putting learning online for all students.

Instead, most schools echoed some of the basic recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: deep-cleaning the area where an infected person spent time, quarantining the person, and leaving it up to consultation with state or local health officials to make decisions about school closures.

The CDC also recommends dismissing school for at least two to five days after an infected person is in the building, but most school plans don’t reference closing whole school buildings. 

The vague school plans go against advice from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

“Decisions about what constitutes substantial community transmission and under what conditions schools would again close need to be outlined before the school year begins,” the science academies said Wednesday in their reopening guidelines. Those protocols say decision-makers should “establish clear thresholds for what those data mean; for example, once a school sees X number of cases, it will enact Y policy.”

Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, Aiden Trabucco, right, wears a mask as he raises his hand to answer a question behind Anthony Gonzales during a summer STEM camp at Wylie High School Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Wylie, Texas.
Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, Aiden Trabucco, right, wears a mask as he raises his hand to answer a question behind Anthony Gonzales during a summer STEM camp at Wylie High School Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Wylie, Texas.

In Orange County, California, the Department of Education says in its plan: “In consultation with the local public health department, the appropriate school official may decide whether school closure is warranted.” But Orange County doesn’t have clear thresholds for closure outlined. 

In Miami-Dade County, Florida, the fourth largest school district in the U.S., guidelines do allow for the closing of schools, but don’t outline the plan for if that happens, nor what would prompt schools to close in the first place.

That’s despite the state’s record COVID-19 cases this month. The state has surpassed 315,000 confirmed cases. Nevertheless, Florida last week ordered all schools to reopen in person, five days a week.

In Volusia County, Florida, the district has designated a schools-specific team of epidemiologists and contact tracers to track and manage the spread of coronavirus, said Patricia Boswell, administrator of county’s health department, in a meeting Wednesday.

In Indianapolis, the public schools’ plan explicitly notes: “The district must be able to quickly implement e-learning for 100% of students if rolling closures occur,” although positive COVID-19 tests will be handled on a “case-by-case basis.” 

The School District of Philadelphia, the largest in Pennsylvania, takes a similar approach.

“If we have high rates of community spread and we believe the school system is contributing to that, in some important way, that would be our criteria to shut down the entire system,” said Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley to local news channel WPVI-TV.

In Memphis, Tennessee, Shelby County Schools outline a more comprehensive plan. It doesn’t indicate a case threshold for closing but notes: “Depending on the extent of positive cases within a school, a school may need to close for up to two weeks and then stagger student attendance upon restarting.”

USA TODAY’s findings matched the conclusions of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a nonprofit in Washington state that’s been reviewing plans.

Few, if any, state-level plans for reopening schools address what schools should do if a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19, said Bree Dusseault, a practitioner-in-residence at the Center for Reinventing Public Education. 

Of the few plans that do address COVID-19 infections among students or teachers, plans range from shutting down the school for 24 to 48 hours for deep cleaning and then resuming classes, to sending all kids home for remote learning for two to four weeks, Dusseault said.

If students are sent home due to a COVID-19 case, “it’s going to be critical that districts ensure students have continuity of access to the same curriculum, teachers, and socio-emotional support staff,” she added.

For districts that do not have a plan yet, the response to an infected person in school should depend on how high transmission is in the community, said William Hanage, an epidemiology professor at Harvard University.

“If there’s one case and it’s a single introduction to the school, and there’s a low rate of community transmission, it might be sensible to shift just that group to education at home for a period of time,” he said.

But that’s different than if infections show up in multiple classes, multiple times, he added.

“If you can keep community transmission low, it’s reasonable to think schools can be reopened and outbreaks within schools can be controlled,” Hanage said. “Once community transmission becomes high, you need to think about doing something different.”

Contributing: Erin Richards, USA TODAY; Cassidy Alexander, Daytona Beach News-Journal; Arika Herron, The Indianapolis Star 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Back to school reopenings: How many COVID-19 cases would close school?

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