For School Outbreaks, It’s When, Not If

That’s frightening. But a case at your child’s school does not mean you should panic. By Amelia Nierenberg and Adam Pasick

This is the Coronavirus Schools Briefing, a guide to the seismic changes in U.S. education that are taking place during the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

Image Students in ninth to 12th grade waiting in line for lunch in Carlton, Minn.Credit...Alex Kormann/Star Tribune, via Associated Press

The coronavirus is unpredictable, but one thing seems certain in this back-to-school season: Outbreaks will appear in many K-12 schools as they reopen. “It’s not a question of if, but when outbreaks will occur,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and the former health commissioner of Baltimore. “We have to be realistic,” said Dr. Benjamin Linas, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University. “If we are opening schools, there will be some Covid.” That inevitability can feel frightening. But a case at your child’s school does not mean you should panic. And a classroom in quarantine, or a school forced to switch to remote learning, does not necessarily mean a district has failed. In fact, if your school is following an established pandemic procedure, it might mean things are working as planned.

Here are a few questions and suggestions to help you calibrate your concern and weigh contingencies, based on our conversations with epidemiologists and public health experts. If there’s a case, where did that person get exposed? “It’s important to distinguish between Covid in your school, which is bad, but not exactly the same thing as Covid being transmitted in your school,” Dr. Linas said. “People have lives outside of school. It’s very likely that people will get infected somewhere else.” It’s back to school — or is it?

A few unrelated cases at a school does not necessarily mean there’s an outbreak. If community transmission rates are high, students are most likely getting infected outside of school, where the environment is less controlled. (Most experts agree that students shouldn’t return to school if more than 5 percent of people in their community test positive.) Effective contact tracing is essential to help families and classrooms assess risks and make a plan. How transparent is your district? Just because there’s a case in your child’s school, it doesn’t mean that your child has been exposed. “By just passing a kid in a hallway, your kid is extremely unlikely to get Covid-19,” said Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and assistant dean at Brown University. “It’s really about being in a classroom with that other person for a significant period of time.” If your child hasn’t been anywhere near the infected child, she said, “it would not be appropriate for your kid to quarantine.” Editors’ Picks

But transparency about cases varies across districts. Some, citing privacy concerns, are only releasing limited data — if any at all. But that might be because they’re interpreting HIPAA incorrectly. Either way, dashboards and trackers are slowly popping up across the country, under pressure from parents and doctors. Detailed, reliable information about outbreaks can keep learning as uninterrupted as possible and may save lives.

What about testing? Pediatric tests have been hard to get in some places, but they are available. Try to find a center that turns around results quickly. If there’s any chance your child may have the virus, don’t send them back to school without a negative test, because research suggests they can be asymptomatic but still contagious. And if they have symptoms — even sniffles or an upset tummy — play it extra safe. “This is not the year to just send your kid to school,” Dr. Ranney said. “This is the year to respect the community and get your kid tested before sending them back.” Outbreaks and responses

  • Michigan: For weeks, the state dragged its feet on releasing detailed information about outbreaks to parents and teachers, citing privacy concerns and sluggish computer systems. On Monday, the state released a list of all schools with coronavirus cases, from K-12 through college.

  • Connecticut: A number of schools had temporarily switched to online learning after a few positive cases. (Many students in the state are back in classrooms full time.) Gov. Ned Lamont challenged that approach as overly cautious because each classroom functions as a pod. “If there happens to be an infection in that one class, it’s just those 20 students and that teacher who would have to quarantine — not the entire middle school or not the entire school,” he told WNPR. The state’s test positivity rate has consistently hovered around 1 percent.

  • Minnesota: School leaders spent the summer making plans for contact tracing and pivots between in-person and distance learning as cases pop up. A rapid-response team is now trying to implement those procedures and protocols.

  • Germany: In the first week of school, the country reported 31 clusters, and 150 total cases. But The Washington Post reports that there have been few documented cases of transmission within schools, and while national cases have been rising, the schools have not been “identified as a driver of infections.” Officials said that’s because of low community transmission rates, more than any school-specific policy. “This is where the United States will have problems,” one doctor said.

The Big Ten calls an audible The athletic conference, which said on Aug. 11 that it would not hold any football games in 2020, abruptly reversed its decision after coming under intense pressure from coaches, parents, players, fans and even President Trump. Football for teams like Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin will now resume as soon as Oct. 23, with safeguards including daily coronavirus testing and enhanced cardiac screening. (In a recent small study out of Ohio State, 15 percent of athletes who tested positive for the virus showed signs of cardiac inflammation. )

Reinstating the season is likely to provoke new outrage from those who believe the league is prioritizing profits, entertainment and public relations peace over the health and safety of student-athletes.

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