What happens if there’s an outbreak in schools? Protocols left up to local officials to handle containment

Posted at 10:02 AM, Jul 30, 2020

Even as the U.S. hit a single-day record of new coronavirus cases this month, the CDC’s latest statement calls for schools to reopen. But critics say there is vague guidance for what happens if there is a school outbreak.

As states across the country weigh the risks of reopening schools this fall, the message from the White House has been loud and clear.

Last week, President Donald Trump stated he would like schools to reopen, stating, “Yeah, I would like to see the schools opened, open 100 percent.”

Most doctors, educators, and psychologists agree that going back to school would be in the best interest of students. But what happens if just one student contracts the coronavirus? Would that force a shutdown?

Some health experts are wary.

“Once you start getting into dozens, or even more kids and teachers starting to get infected, it's going to be very hard to keep that school open, said Dr. Ashish Jha, a professor of medicine and the director of Harvard University’s Global Health Institute.

“We have to have really smart planning and we have to have a clear protocol for how to identify kids and teachers and staff who get infected and then know what to do when we identify them. I just haven't seen that kind of clear protocol yet.”

Late last week, the CDC did issue new guidelines for school reopening. They include encouraging social distancing, spacing out desks and requiring face coverings.

But the guidance leaves it up to states, schools and local health departments how to precisely handle an actual outbreak.

“What we have is patchwork, not just across states, but even within states across communities,” said Dr. Jha. “States are turning over the responsibility to individual communities and saying, ‘You figure it out.’”

Recommended strategies from the CDC’s guidelines include:

Immediately separating staff and children with COVID-19 symptoms

Setting up safe transport for anyone who is sick to their home or to a healthcare facility

Closing off areas used by a sick person, cleaning and disinfecting after 24 hours when possible

Immediately notifying health officials, staff, families and anyone who may have had close contact with an infected person while maintaining confidentiality laws

Still, there is concern.

A recent survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found, “46 percent of Americans believe schools need major modifications to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, and another 31 percent think they shouldn’t reopen for in-person learning at all.”

“We can open schools safely but key to that is making sure the level of community transmission is pretty low, so you don't have sort of raging wildfires in the community,” said Dr. Jha. “Because it's going to be very hard to keep those fires out of the school.”