North Paulding High School in Dallas, Georgia made headlines last week when it became one of the first schools in the nation to reopen. Much of the coverage revolved around photos posted online that showed crowded hallways with few masks in sight. Now, the school is closing for at least two days amid an outbreak with nine positive cases of Coronavirus.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that six students and three staffers tested positive for Coronavirus. In a letter to parents dated August 9, the district superintendent said that the school would be closed on Monday and Tuesday of this week for cleaning and disinfecting. There is no mention of a general quarantine or isolation or the possibility that even more students an faculty may be presymptomatic or asymptomatic but untested.
“Tuesday evening parents and students will be notified of whether Digital Learning will continue, or if in-person instruction may resume,” the letter said, leaving open the possibility that the school may remain closed for longer than the initial two days.
“I apologize for any inconvenience this schedule change may cause, but hopefully we all can agree that the health and safety of our students and staff takes precedence over any other considerations at this time,” the superintendent said in the letter.
The photos of the packed hallway went viral after they were posted by Hannah Waters, a 15-year-old sophomore. The school suspended Waters for posting the pictures but later rescinded the suspension.
The Georgia Department of Public Health statistics for Paulding County, a rural bedroom community on the northwest side of Atlanta, show that COVID-19 was at its peak when schools reopened. Transmission was at very low levels until the beginning of July when it surged to more than 30 new cases per day. By the time schools reopened in early August, the seven-day moving average was above 30 cases per day. Now, a fourth of the county’s 1,678 total cases were reported within the past two weeks.
The US seems to be the only nation attempting to reopen schools with virus transmission still at high levels. Denmark reopened its schools in April using a “bubble” model in which students stayed in separate groups of 12, Time reports. South Korean schools reopened in May but many closed again after another surge in virus cases. Likewise, Israel reopened its schools in May using the “bubble” tactic. This mitigation strategy was dropped in June and was followed by a new outbreak. Data showed that schools were one of the second largest sources of new infections.
Here in the US, the Trump Administration has been pushing for schools to reopen for in-person classes despite the CDC’s warning that “full-sized, in-person classes, activities and events” represent the highest risk. The CDC advises that “groups of students stay together and with the same teacher throughout/across school days and groups do not mix,” and that “students remain at least 6 feet apart and do not share objects.” Many school districts seem unwilling or unable to follow the recommendations.
Schools that follow CDC guidelines and that are in areas with lower rates of community spread might have better luck with reopening than Paulding County, but the Georgia district’s abortive attempt at reopening underscores the fact that there is not a one-size-fits-all prescription for handling a pandemic. A nation of more than 300 million people and with widely varying rates of viral spread will need to tailor strategies to the local situation.
I don’t think that the fact of the pandemic is hurting Donald Trump’s approval rating as much his poor handling of the COVID-19 threat. Trump’s advice on the outbreak has been almost uniformly bad and that includes his push to reopen all schools and threat to cut funding for those who balk. The decision to reopen should be made based on local conditions and not for fear of losing federal dollars.
Mr. Trump obviously prefers to get the nation back to normal before the election but pretending the pandemic is not happening won’t make it or the associated economic crisis go away. If the president’s push to get the country and schools back to business-as-usual goes poorly, he is likely to be hurt worse at the polls than if he had squarely faced the crisis and told the American people the truth about the need to slow the spread of the virus. Americans can see the danger and the need for mitigations even if the president cannot.
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