One of the first school districts in the U.S to reopen its doors during the pandemic of the new coronavirus it didn’t take a day to deal with the problem faced by all students and schools: what happens when someone goes to school infected?
On the first day of school, last Thursday, a call from the county health department notified the high school Greenfield Central Junior, in Indiana, that a student who walked down the aisles and sat in several classrooms, had tested positive for coronavirus.
Administrators initiated the emergency protocol, isolating the student and ordering everyone who had close contact, including other students, to be quarantined for 14 days. It is not clear whether the student has infected someone else.
The news surprised Harold E. Olin, the school’s superintendent. “We were very shocked, as it was the first day.”
To avoid the same scenario, hundreds of school districts around the country, which planned to reopen their classrooms, many on a part-time basis, have retreated in recent weeks as infections have increased in many states.
Those who reopen prepare for the almost certain likelihood of quarantines and abrupt shutdowns when students and school staff test positive for the disease. Florida e Texas they hope to open classrooms in a few weeks if the contamination rates drop, which has caused strong objections from the teachers’ union.
More than 80% of the residents of California they live in counties where rates of positive tests and hospitalizations are too high for school buildings to be opened according to rules released last month. And schools in Alexandria and Virginia reported on Friday, the 31st, that they would teach classes remotely. This means that the entire Washington and Baltimore metropolitan region, with more than a million children, will undergo virtual learning in the fall.
In March, when schools closed abruptly, it seemed unimaginable that educators and students would not return to school in the fall, as has been the case in other parts of the world. Now, with the virus still active, tens of millions of students will start the year remotely, and it has become clear that only a small percentage of children are likely to see the inside of a school building before the end of the year.
“There is no good answer,” said Mark Henry, superintendent of the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, near Houston, to participants in a recent extraordinary meeting at which there was a decision to postpone the hybrid reopening of the district until September. “If there was a good answer, if there was an easy answer,” he said, “we would put this up for you and everyone would be happy.”
Wherever schools reopen – except for a part of the northeast where the virus is largely under control – it is likely to see positive results for the disease quickly, as it did in Indiana.
An analysis of the The New York Times found that in many districts of the Sun Belt – a region of the United States that comprises the south and southwest of the country – at least 10 people infected with the coronavirus would be expected at a school with approximately 500 students and staff during the first week of classes.
To address this likelihood, many schools and some states have adopted contact tracking measures and quarantine protocols, with different limits on which they would close classrooms or buildings.
Due to the low rate of local infection, the city of Nova York, the country’s largest district, plans to reopen schools in a hybrid model on September 10, with students attending face-to-face classes one to three days a week. However, the system can be stopped quickly if the infection rate across the city increases, even if modestly.
Last Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio presented an action plan for positive cases in school units – that would mean that many of the city’s 1,800 public schools are likely to have individual classrooms or even entire buildings will be closed in certain circumstances.
One or two cases confirmed in a single classroom, for example, would require the closure of these classes for 14 days, with all students and staff quarantined. The rest of the school would continue to function, but if two or more people in different classrooms at the same school tested positive, the entire building would be closed for an investigation and would not be reopened for two weeks, depending on the results.
In California, where schools in two-thirds of the state have been prevented from reopening for face-to-face classes, for now, state guidelines require a school to close for at least 14 days if more than 5% of its students and staff are positive for a period two weeks.
Chicago, the third largest school district in the U.S, proposed a hybrid reopening system that would place students in groups of 15 members that could be quarantined if one of them tests positive. School buildings should be closed if the city has an average of more than 400 new cases per week or 200 cases per day, according to the plan, with other worrying factors, such as low hospital capacity or a sudden increase in cases taken into account.
In Indiana, where a high school student tested positive last Thursday in Greenfield, a suburb of Indianapolis with 23,000 people, the virus began to fire in mid-June, and the number of cases remained relatively high. This week, Indianapolis chose to start the school year online.
The school system in Greenfield, with eight schools and 4,400 students, gave families the option of face-to-face learning or remote teaching. At Greenfield Central Junior, where the high school student with the positive test attends, about 15% of the 700 enrolled students opted for remote learning, said Olin, the region’s superintendent.
“It was amazing that our families wanted us to return,” he said, adding that families needed to be responsible and not send students to school if they were showing symptoms or awaiting test results. “Students are also required to wear masks, except when they are eating or doing physical education in the open,” he said – and as far as he knew, the student who tested positive was doing so.
“Anyone who was less than five feet from the student for more than 15 minutes last Thursday was instructed to isolate himself for two weeks,” said Olin. He did not give a specific number of people who were affected at the school, but said that no teacher or staff member was identified as a close contact and therefore none were placed in Quarantine.