Austin’s top doctor: expect schools to have COVID-19 clusters when they reopen

Education

AUSTIN (KXAN) — At Thursday’s special Austin City Council meeting — in addition to voting on new enforcement measures — city leaders also talked about reopening schools.

Austin-Travis County’s Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said the reality is when schools open in August, every school will have a COVID-19 cluster.

This week, the Texas Education Agency announced schools must offer in-person learning this fall. That would mean, in many cases, parents will have to choose between 100% virtual learning or 100% in-person learning for their children.

At the request of Mayor Steve Adler, the University of Austin at Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium looked at different scenarios that could happen when kids return to classrooms.

UT Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.

In the above bar graph, Dr. Lauren Ancel Meyers explains the x-axis illustrates three different scenarios. The y-axis is for the number of students who would show up the first week of school already infected with COVID-19.

The first group of three bars (green, orange and purple bars on the left hand side) looks at what would happen if we opened schools today, Meyers explained.

“The middle [group of green, orange and purple bars] is imagine that the virus continues to spread at the rate that it is spreading today, and we do not slow transmission at all… and we open schools on August 18,” Meyers said.

The last set of green, orange and purple bars on the right shows what would happen if the city enacted strict measures like the full stay-home order it had in March and April.

Each color represents school sizes:

  • Green: schools with 100 students
  • Orange: schools with 500 students
  • Purple: schools with 1,000 students

According to the graph, if nothing is done to slow the transmission of the virus, for a school that has 500 students, you’ll likely see 15 to 20 of them show up infected that first week of school.

However, if people stayed home for the month leading up to back-to-school, you’d only see three students show up with the virus.

For a school that has 1,000 kids, no slowdown of the virus transmission would mean more than 30 students showing up already infected. In the third scenario, that number would be fewer than 10.

“It’s really concerning because it seems like, from the information, even in the best case scenario, we’re starting on Day 1 with essentially a cluster already,” said Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza. “So either it’s a child going to school spreading that to a teacher or possibly to, you know, God forbid, a teacher spreading it to a child, the child going home to their family.”

Meyers said it’s better to have as few students as possible arrive at the school already infected.

“Every time a child comes to school infected or a staff member, a faculty member comes to school infected, there is a chance that they will spread disease to other people, and they would spark a larger outbreak in the school community,” she said.

Another reason to aim to have the lowest number possible is to avoid disruptions in learning.

Meyers told KXAN, “Schools might put in place rules where they’re going to ask a class to quarantine for a couple weeks or a grade or even they may even get to the point where they close the entire school for some period of time.”

She said even without a new stay-home order, people’s behavior and enforcement of masks could help make a difference.

“I think we have seen evidence over the last couple of weeks that the changes in policy and the changes in behavior that have occurred since mid-June are really slowing the spread of the virus,” said Meyers. “So if we can do more of that, if we can really cultivate a culture of caution where we are thinking about our health and our neighbor’s health, our community’s health, and thinking about how our actions might impact the feasibility of opening schools. Then we may be able to bring that transmission rate even lower.”

The TEA’s guidelines for reopening schools do include safety precautions. The agency said students, staff and faculty should all go through health screenings.

Following the governor’s order, masks are required.

Personal protective equipment will be provided by the state, and school districts’ COVID-19 related expenses can be reimbursed.

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