As society moves toward the reopening of schools and businesses in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent government shut down, many people are left wondering if it is a safe decision. In late August of 2020 Dr. Robert Leverence of UT Health San Antonio made a media appearance claiming he was “cautiously optimistic” about schools reopening in his community.
Dr. Leverence made this statement after looking specifically at the numbers of hospitalizations for COVID-19, as opposed to the new case numbers. This is because the new case numbers are dependent on how many tests are conducted, and can be impacted by small outbreaks in specific areas. When we focus on the number of people who are actually hospitalized, we can get a picture of how severe the outbreaks really are.
In late August the data models indicated that there would be a small surge of COVID-19 infections once schools reopened, but nothing overwhelming like the surge that happened over the Fourth of July, which Dr Leverence predicted the week prior in June of 2020. In fact, in Dr. Leverence has changed his opinion on the reopening of schools and businesses since the beginning of this summer, when he stated, “ I don’t think it’s going to be safe to open up for…public gatherings later this fall. But we’ll find out. We’ll find out.”
And we are finding out. San Antonio schools have opened their doors to students and the data shows that there have been a total of more than 80 positive COVID-19 cases in the San Antonio school district since their reopening in August of this year, an infection rate of .05%. The data indicates that teachers and staff make up 65 of the 86 confirmed cases, which shows that staff have been more greatly impacted by COVID-19 outbreaks than students.
Often children stay asymptomatic when they are infected with COVID-19, and not all students have returned to in-person school, which might be contributing to these statistics. Ultimately, as Dr. Leverence indicated, the infection rates are not necessarily indicative of the true spread of the virus throughout the community. Children are less likely to show symptoms of the virus, and yet can still spread the virus through a process called “shedding” for up to three weeks. This means that children can become the conduit to community spread, without showing a spike in infection rate through school statistics.
With some families choosing to use distance learning options instead of in-person education, these low numbers of infection could be attributed to behavioral choices made by the families and school districts themselves. That is exactly what Dr. Leverence said would make the difference between a large or small surge when schools reopened, human choices. According to Dr. Leverence, the behaviors we engage in (avoiding large crowds, social distancing, hand washing, etc…) are going to make the greatest impact on these COVID-19 numbers, and are the only measures that will keep the spread of the virus to a lower rate.
In fact, schools that rushed to reopen on the other side of the planet this summer showed the importance of these measures to stop the spread. Isreail schools reopened in May and there was not enough time given to administrators to prepare and implement new systems for all of the children. The result was mass COVID-19 outbreaks. One school alone had 197 positive cases between both students and teachers.
At the time, the Isreali government thought it was safe to reopen due to the decline in cases in May of 2020, despite the warning of experts. Eli Waxman was the former chairman of the team advising Israel’s National Security Council on the pandemic, and has stepped down from his position after the council refused to heed his warning about reopening the schools so quickly and abruptly. The experience in Israel has given us a lot to learn from. Rushing children into crowded environments where social distancing is not an option can put our entire community at risk.
The data coming from the San Antonio schools reopening shows a more positive outcome than what happened in Israel and three weeks later, it seems Dr. Laverence’s optimism has paid off – the numbers are in alignment with his data-backed predictions, but what does this mean for the reopening of schools and businesses across the nation?
Right now, every state is taking a different approach, so the results are going to vary. In the words of Dr. Leverence, “We will see. We will see. “