Health experts are recommending planning and caution when making decisions about whether to send kids back to school, amid New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's announcement Saturday that he will make a decision on reopening schools in New York this week.
Cuomo noted that he is monitoring the infection rate across the state. Health experts have cautioned against reopening in areas across the US where Covid-19 transmission levels are still high.
If you try to open schools in areas where there’s accelerated transmission, teachers will get sick, bus drivers will get sick, and all it's going to take is one teacher to wind up in the hospital very sick with Covid-19, and it will destabilize the entire school district, and that's what's going to happen," said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College, on Saturday morning. "We're setting up teachers to fail."
Emergency medicine physician Dr. Daniel Fagbuyi said Saturday that planning is key when considering reopening. He recommends communities consider reopening once they have met certain requirements, including reaching a positivity rate less than 5%, mandating face masks, and implementing rapid testing, social distancing and regular hand washing.
Fagbuyi noted that the measures "seem basic, but if you don't have any of these all in place at the same time, there's always a loophole, and once you have a loophole, it's game over."
In this case, "game over" can be fatal.
If there's one child that gets sick and dies, unfortunately, that affects that whole community," said Fagbuyi.
Experts say considering these potential consequences of reopening can be helpful.
"We have to ask the question, are we willing to live with the end result of the inevitable situation where teachers are going to become infected? That's going to happen," said Dr. Mike Saag, associate dean for global health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "Are we willing to live with those consequences? Because I think that's what we're going to see in about three months from now, unfortunately, with the rates of infections that we have."
Saag said leaders have to be willing to act on plans that are made.
"Once a plan is made, the implementation has to follow in lockstep," said Saag. "If it doesn't, we should be expecting cases in schools, and it won't be news that somebody in Mississippi or somebody in another school system became infected."
Hotez recommended waiting for coronavirus cases to reach containment in states before schools reopen. Saag noted that New York’s cases dropped to near pre-epidemic levels before they considered reopening schools.
Cuomo said Saturday that even in New York, parents are understandably concerned.
It’s not the school districts' choice, it's the parents' choice," said Cuomo. "And that’s why these plans are important."
Saag noted that it's a tough decision, "The question is, what are we willing to live with?"