The current COVID-19 pandemic has provided challenges for education.
Congregant settings such as schools and athletic events can facilitate transmission of the virus. However, school provides benefits for children that are not achievable through virtual forums. Brick and mortar schools provide a better learning and socialization environment. Some students rely on school lunch as their primary meal for the day. Schools also provide psychological support and are often the first and sole place at which abuse and neglect may be recognized. Thus, opening schools is an important endeavor that will require a balancing of the risks posed by COVID-19 against the benefits derived from in-person education.
The Texas Education Agency (TEA) requires that school districts provide face-to-face learning for students whose parents implore their child receives this form of education. Public schools may delay opening for up to eight weeks with consent of local school boards. Failure to open in accordance with these guidelines could result in loss of funding. Private and religious schools are exempt from these guidelines. Attorney General Ken Paxton has issued an opinion that Local Health Authorities cannot order schools closed to prevent COVID-19 but can order limited quarantine in response to an outbreak at a specific school.
At the time of this writing, Galveston County has seen over 8,000 cases, with 78 hospitalizations and 73 deaths. The percentage of positive cases for the last two and a half weeks has stabilized at 9 percent. This means that about 1 in 10 Galveston County residents are infected with COVID-19 and are transmitting the virus. There is no optimal threshold for number or percentage of cases for opening schools.
Given our current rates of transmission, it is inevitable that there will be cases of COVID-19 within schools.
Athletic programs are an integral part of the school experience but represent an un-assessable risk of spreading COVID-19 into classrooms. Students infected in a sports practice or event can then bring infections back to their classrooms, amplifying the exposure to others in the school. Note that even professional leagues such as Major League Baseball have not successfully navigated reopening their seasons and have had to cancel games and quarantine teams.
Based on the current prevalence of COVID-19 in Galveston County, Galveston County Local Health Authority Dr. Philip Keiser is making the following recommendations for the opening of schools.
All school districts should follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and TEA guidelines for reopening of schools (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/index.html, https://tea.texas.gov/about-tea/news-and-multimedia/news-releases/news-2020/tea-issues-comprehensive-guidelines-for-a-safe-return-to-on-campus-instruction-for-the-2020-21-school-year). While there are minor differences between these guidelines, they are consistent with regard to the principles of COVID-19 mitigation. Specifically, all schools should follow guidelines in the following areas:
- Social distancing within classrooms
- Cohorting students
- Maintaining small class size
- Universal masking
- Excluding sick children and staff from school
- Consistent cleaning of rooms and surfaces
- Following guidelines for food service and cafeterias
- Bus transportation
- Limiting visitors in school
Because of the high percentage of cases and the continued number of people infected with COVID-19 in the area, Keiser also recommends the following:
School districts should delay opening brick and mortar schools for as long as practical under TEA guidelines. This will allow for the potential decrease in case rate and decrease risk to students.
For systems that are staggering re-opening, allow for at least 10 days between each wave of students to allow for incubation of COVID-19.
Districts should strongly consider delaying sports programs.
Districts should develop a detailed plan regarding response to COVID-19 cases in schools.
COVID-19 remains a reportable disease and schools must do the following:
- Notify GCHD immediately for any known or suspected COVID-19 cases
- Send potential COVID-19 cases home
- Keep a seating chart for each class and provide to GCHD on request
- Work with GCHD for contact tracing and isolation of cases and contacts
Response may range from isolating an individual student to quarantining a school in the event of multiple cases. Testing may be recommended and is available through Galveston County at 832-632-6731.