Roger Casey could feel the hypocrisy in what he was being asked to do and it didn’t sit well with him.
How could he, a member of the Monroe County Board of Education, vote to close schools for the first nine weeks of the school year while the district’s football teams were still holding organized, contact practices?
“How are we going to explain it to everyone else that does not have a child playing football?” Casey said during a board meeting last week. “We’re telling those parents that it’s not safe for you to send your kids to school, but they go by the school every day and the football team’s out there practicing.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow.”
In the end, he didn’t.
Casey was the lone board member to vote against online classes for the first nine weeks. The measure passed, 4-1. Students in Monroe County will take classes online, while the football teams, bands, cheerleading squads, and other extra-curricular groups meet in person.
Across Alabama, school districts of all sizes are desperately trying to reopen safely amid the coronavirus pandemic, but some districts in other neighboring states, such as Tennessee, have already had to close again after reopening.
Alabama has not seen any schools start and then close yet, but the first handful of systems just began to reopen this week. Already, five students at Saraland High School were sent home for a 14-day isolation after coming in contact with someone who had the virus on the first day of school.
But the closures and cases in schools around Alabama offer a warning of what’s to come. As do several summer school activities and practices in Alabama that were cancelled when students tested positive or were exposed to someone who did.
Bertha Hidalgo, a PhD epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said schools are facing some very difficult choices.
“It’s hard to err on the side of caution,” Hidalgo said. “So many have so eloquently described the many reasons why kids need to be back in school.
“To say we should not open schools is a hard step.”
For schools that have reopened to students, a handful have already run into problems within the first week.
In Georgia, one district announced it would begin the year online-only after 90 school employees were forced to quarantine due to possible exposure. In another, the state’s largest school district, 260 employees are not being allowed to report to the schools because of positive tests or exposures.
In Corinth, Miss., 116 students were quarantined, with six students and one staff member known to be infected within two weeks of reopening.
Two districts in Tennessee that had reopened to in-person learning have already closed or shifted to staggered schedules after positive cases. One of those announced on Tuesday that two schools would be closed for the rest of the week, saying later that an undisclosed number of active cases had been identified and that “several other staff members have been identified as potentially exposed and must quarantine for two weeks.”
That’s exactly the scenario Monroe County Superintendent Greg Shehan was trying to avoid when he proposed opening his district’s eight schools online only for the first nine weeks.
He said the rural south Alabama district – which includes Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville – doesn’t have the resources, especially substitute teachers, to handle a situation where numerous employees get exposed and must isolate to avoid infecting students.
“I would rather do this now rather than have to make an emergency closure in the middle of the week because we don’t have enough substitute teachers or we’ve had to isolate half a school or so forth,” Shehan said. “I can see that can lead to major problems at that point.”
Shehan said Monroe County has already seen issues with the limited number of students back on campus for extracurricular activities.
“For the last two and a half weeks, we have had programs going on at all of our school campuses, whether it be athletics, reading programs, cheer, band camps and so forth,” Shehan said during the board meeting. “In nearly every campus, we’ve had to isolate [people], whether it be teachers, coaches, or students due to exposures or due to positive tests and it’s become a major issue.”
Can young children get it?
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was not discovered in humans until late 2019, so there is still much that scientists don’t know about it. But as more studies are conducted and released on the virus, a picture is beginning to emerge.
First, we know that children of all ages can get the virus, sometimes with severe consequences. Alabama reported in June that an infant died of COVID, and in Georgia state health officials announced this week that a 7-year-old with no pre-existing conditions had died of the disease.
Researchers have documented evidence that children over age 10 seem to catch and spread the virus at about the same level as adults.
“Older kids, in middle school and high school, tend to transmit the virus as efficiently as adults,” Hidalgo said. “But we don’t have a lot of data about how well the younger kids transmit to others.”
What information is available isn’t very encouraging.
An overnight summer camp in Georgia saw a huge spike of infections in June and July, with at least 231 children infected. More than half of the campers age 6-10 who attended the camp tested positive for the virus within two weeks of going home, according to an investigation into the outbreak conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Hidalgo said an earlier paper out of South Korea seemed to suggest that children under 10 were less likely to catch or spread the virus, but that did not seem to be the case in Georgia.
“I think what the Georgia study suggests is that kids that are younger are also likely to be susceptible and test positive for COVID,” Hidalgo said. “But it remains to be seen, or we have limited evidence in terms of how well they can transmit the virus to each other and to adults.”
Because of the timeline of that outbreak, Hidalgo said the best guess is that adult or teenage staff members showed up with the virus during the four-day orientation before the campers arrived. The virus likely then spread among the staff before campers arrived, and then to at least 231 of the 509 attendees under 18.
The camp began sending exposed children home three days after opening and closed completely after a week.
What hasn’t yet been pieced together is how many of the children who got the virus at camp then went on to spread it to others, especially people they live with. That piece, Hidalgo said, will probably become clearer in the coming weeks, as Georgia state health officials monitor the families of children from the camp.
Can young children spread it?
Also released last week, a study from Children’s Hospital of Chicago showed that children under 5 who do have COVID-19 had even more viral load in their noses than any other age group.
“Our study was not designed to prove that younger children spread COVID-19 as much as adults, but it is a possibility,” lead author Dr. Taylor Heald-Sargent said in a news release. “We need to take that into account in efforts to reduce transmission as we continue to learn more about this virus.”
Another preliminary study out of Italy that was the result of contact tracing people who tested positive for COVID, found that children under 14 were more likely to spread the disease to someone else than any other age group. The authors said that while “childhood contacts were less likely to become cases, children were more likely to infect household members, perhaps because of the difficulty of successfully isolating children in household settings.”
These are the kinds of studies decision-makers in Alabama will have to pay attention to as they weigh options in their districts.
What did we learn from summer practices?
With no top-down mandates from the state or federal government, only a series of guidelines, each school district in Alabama is largely left to make its own decisions on how and what to reopen.
That can allow local districts to decide based on the conditions in the local area, but it also leaves tough decisions up to the district leaders.
In Monroe County, Shehan was willing to recommend closing classrooms but said he hasn’t yet decided about allowing those football teams to play. He said he wished the Alabama High School Athletic Association would make the decision for him by canceling fall sports.
“The central board of directors for the High School [Athletic] Association should have handled this problem for us,” Shehan said. “This decision should have been made for the entire state. I have issues with it also, but once again we have been urged to look at the data before we make that decision.”
The AHSAA allowed member schools to begin holding summer workouts for athletes on June 1, and last week released a series of guidelines for resuming holding sporting competitions in the fall.
Several schools have suspended summer workouts after students tested positive for COVID-19 or had known exposure to someone who had. Two Alabama schools announced last week they would isolate their entire teams for 14 days due to possible exposures. One of those, Oneonta, also had to send the marching band home.
In Decatur, Austin High School temporarily halted its marching band practices after a band member tested positive, according to the Decatur Daily.
AHSAA executive director Steve Savarese said when announcing the guidelines that decisions about whether to have sports or participate in them would be made by individual families and school districts unless a measure from the Alabama Department of Public Health prohibited them.
“Unless health officials shut down schools as well as all outside activities, the choice will remain with the parents (as to whether their children play),” he said. “Regardless of your position with the virus and sports, your position on to return or not to return to school, your perspective is right. Again, there is no wrong position here, but the choice to participate must remain with the parents.”
Savarese said Thursday that he remains “hopefully optimistic” that the football season will take place. The high school football season is set to begin August 20-21, although some schools have announced they will delay the season until September, rescheduling their early games.
The state’s current plan is to have fans in the stands for high school football games, although there may be reduced capacity due to social distancing requirements in the state’s Safer at Home order.
Who makes the call?
For now, if football is going to be canceled, it’s up to the local school boards and superintendents like Shehan.
“I think this should have been handled at a higher level, but it wasn’t,” Shehan said. “It’s been kicked to us, so we have to make those decisions.”
Hidalgo said one tool to help make local decisions is to look at what percentage of COVID tests in each county or city are positive. If a high percentage of tests are positive, that indicates that there are likely many other cases in the community that are not being detected but are likely transmitting the virus to others.
“A city or county that has a very low community spread, where their percent positive is 3 to 5%, is likely going to be able to have a more successful reopening than cities or counties that have greater percent positivity,” Hidalgo said.
Hidalgo said one common benchmark is 5% positivity to reopen schools.
Alabama’s statewide average is currently about 15% but can vary significantly by county. County-level percent positivity data in Alabama is available on the ADPH’s color-coded COVID-19 Risk Indicator Dashboard.
Virtual learning at least offers some certainty
In such an uncertain world, the only certainty may be to shut down.
Hidalgo, the UAB epidemiologist, said she chose online-only option for her two children in the Hoover City Schools because at least then she knew what to plan for.
“In order for me to plan out the next few months, it was going to be important to have some form of stability,” she said. “And so it’s just easier to pick virtual and go with that.”
She also acknowledged that many families don’t have the same luxury she does in a job that can easily be done remotely.
“If both parents have to go to work, or whoever is the caretaker is unable to be at home, their only choice may be to send their kid to school if schools are open,” she said. “I think that’s what makes this really difficult is that, you know, schools are in many ways safety nets for so many families.
“I just wish that as communities we had done a better job of getting our numbers down before we got to the point where we needed to decide about school reopening.”