Ideally, students and teachers returning to classrooms this fall would be tested for the novel coronavirus “as much as in major league sports,” says Diana Cervantes, an epidemiologist at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. In Texas, that will not happen.
With no plans for widespread testing and a virus still spreading quickly in many communities, “schools should be prepared to have infected individuals show up,” said Spencer Fox, a University of Texas at Austin researcher who models coronavirus risks.
Infections are inevitable in schools, and administrators will face the challenge of keeping them from growing into outbreaks that force school shutdowns and spark community hot spots. Employing many mitigation measures, experts say, is the best strategy: mask-wearing, hand-washing, keeping students in isolated cohorts, ensuring proper ventilation and holding class outside whenever possible.
The many Texas schools preparing for in-person classes next week will be largely on their own to devise precautions against a virus that spreads silently in as many as 40% of those it infects. Guidance from the state education agency is heavy on recommendations, light on requirements. In many districts, there will be soap and hand sanitizer aplenty, social distancing and physical barriers where possible, and no required testing.
Many experts believe that community spread will be the inevitable result.
“The reality is, unless you’re doing routine testing, you’re not going to be able to identify those kiddos who are asymptomatic and presymptomatic,” Cervantes said. “Schools have to come in with the assumption that there will be positive children walking around their hallways every day. … They feel fine, they look fine, but they are spreading the virus.”
Balanced against health concerns are the educational needs of the more than 5 million public school students in Texas. Experts say students learn best in schools, and in-person classes are especially important for students with disabilities. In many parts of the state, students learning remotely will receive a worse education, some struggling just to get online. And for many children, being in school means food, medical care and a refuge from abuse.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has said districts “should start with a goal of having students physically present in school,” but also acknowledged that “the current widespread circulation of the virus will not permit in-person learning to be safely accomplished in many jurisdictions.”
Cases are still growing in Texas, and the share of coronavirus tests that turn up positive is around 10% — a figure Gov. Greg Abbott called a “warning flag,” and far higher than the 5% benchmark some experts say communities should be below before reopening schools.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend universal testing in schools, and bare-bones guidance from the Texas Education Agency does not encourage testing asymptomatic staff members or students as a prevention strategy. That’s in part because large-scale testing in the U.S. generally, and in Texas in particular, is still not feasible.
Over the last week, Texas performed an average of about 45,000 viral tests per day. The Houston Independent School District alone has well over 200,000 students.
Still, some large districts across the nation are making an attempt. The Los Angeles Unified School District plans to test 700,000 students and 75,000 staff members. And Detroit public schools plan to require negative COVID-19 tests for all in-person staffers, with the hope that there will be enough testing capacity for all students.
Many of Texas’ biggest districts — Houston ISD, Dallas ISD, Austin ISD and El Paso ISD among them — will not require testing of anyone at any point. Individuals who know or suspect they have COVID-19 will be instructed to stay at home through the 14-day incubation period, according to state guidelines. But they can return to campus without being tested if they show improvement over a specified period of time.
“Very few [districts] will probably have access to testing. But we know some things about the epidemiology of the disease. Even if you don’t have a lot of testing, at a minimum, if you distance the kids and if everybody over 2, including the teachers, wears masks, and people don’t come back to school sick, you should be able to control the number of infections in your school,” said Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a Stanford pediatrics and infectious disease expert who is adv