What Will Schools Look Like in The Fall?
Posted on 07/31/2020

This week, Dr. Amy Person made one of the most difficult decision she has had to make as Health Officer for Benton and Franklin Counties and recommended that schools begin the 2020-2021 school year with distance learning for the majority of students. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Benton-Franklin Health District (BFHD) has worked closely with our school districts on how best to keep the students and staff safe while limiting the spread of the virus in our community.

Several weeks ago, BFHD created a task force dedicated to schools. This team works with school districts, the State Department of Health (DOH), and the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). DOH has been working with representatives from local public health jurisdictions to create frameworks for public health decision-making for reopening schools. These frameworks will include metrics for safe reopening. At this time, they have not been finalized.

As we edged closer to the start of the school year, local superintendents requested that Dr. Person not wait for the frameworks from DOH and make her recommendation no later than July 28, so that all of the districts could decide on how best to proceed for the upcoming school year. They wanted to give families and staff sufficient time to prepare for whichever scenario they decided on for the start of school.

While we don’t yet have the finalized metrics for schools, DOH defines low disease activity as having fewer than 25 cases per 100,000 residents in a 14-day period. That means that Benton County should not have more than 50 new cases total in two weeks and Franklin County should only have about 24. On July 28, Benton County’s case count was over 360 per 100,000 residents in a 14-day period and Franklin County’s was over 616, which are well above any metrics being discussed by DOH.

In addition to the high disease rates, we are currently seeing over 100 cases in school-aged kids every two weeks in Benton and Franklin Counties. We know that people are contagious up to two days before they have any symptoms and some people never develop symptoms at all. If a staff member or student tests positive after being at school when they were contagious, entire classrooms may have to quarantine for 14 days at a time. Families would be required to keep their students home or pick them up from school on very little notice. Teachers and students would have to shift suddenly to online lessons. This could also cause staffing shortages, as teachers and other school staff are required to quarantine.  Once the quarantine period ended, it could be repeated over and over for months on end. Families with more than one student in school could have different children quarantined at different times. Delaying in-person learning until our community disease rates are lower will give schools a better chance of reopening safely, with fewer interruptions and more consistent learning environments for students.

While the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended that schools reopen for in-person learning, both organizations stress that those recommendations are for areas with low transmission rates. Unfortunately, that does not apply to Benton and Franklin Counties at this time. While children may not have as great of a risk of bad outcomes as adults, they are still transmitting the virus to others who may be much more vulnerable, like parents, grandparents, and teachers.

Our entire community wants schools to be able to reopen safely as quickly as possible. In order to make that happen, it’s going to take a unified effort to slow the spread of this disease. We’re very encouraged by the number of people wearing masks in public and we need to make sure we’re all wearing them everywhere. This has already had an impact on our case counts. It’s going to take more than just masks. We need to avoid gatherings with anyone outside of our household… all gatherings, no matter how big or small. We must also encourage our families and friends to do the same. Continue to wash our hands frequently and thoroughly and stay home even if we feel just the slightest bit sick.

BFHD and Dr. Person will continue to work closely with schools. COVID-19 is a novel infection and the approaches to dealing with it in schools may change over the coming weeks as new information is learned. BFHD will continue to evaluate emerging research and data about COVID-19 in children and the impact for schools. We recognize the critical role education and schools have in the health and well- being of children and families and that for many children, success is highest when they can physically be in school. It is our fervent hope that she can soon change her recommendation. Making that happen is up to all of us.