Public Health official: Opening schools before Labor Day could fuel spread of COVID-19

Published: Jul. 21, 2020 at 2:38 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 23, 2020 at 11:01 AM CDT
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) – Dr. Farley Verner, the Medical Authority for the Waco McLennan County Public Health District who issued an order Tuesday delaying the start of on-campus and instruction activities at private and public K-12 schools in the county until after Labor Day, says an earlier return to class “poses a significant danger” of fueling the spread of COVID-19.

Verner’s order doesn’t affect plans for remote instruction.

The county is experiencing a dramatic increase in community spread, hospitalizations and deaths, Verner said during a virtual news conference Wednesday.

“Reopening the schools can reasonably be expected to result in some increase of spread of COVID-19 in community at a time when such an increase poses a significant danger,” he said.

School age children in the county account for 332 or about 13 percent of the confirmed cases in the county, he said, but because children are more likely to be asymptomatic, the actual number could be 10 times that many he said.

“There are data indicating children have levels of virus in the respiratory tract that are as high as adults and this would speak to their ability to transmit infection,” Verner said.

“There’s new information children actually do transmit infection at rates higher than we thought, especially within the household setting,” he said.

“The number of students who are actually cared for by grandparents in the community is another data point that came into play with their increased risk of severe illness and increased risk of hospitalization.”

The county was reporting 3,688 confirmed cases of the virus Wednesday, an increase of 113.

Seventy seven patients are hospitalized, 15 of them on ventilators.

Twenty eight residents have now died including a 43-year-old Hispanic man and two 88-year-old white men, the Waco McLennan County Health District reported Wednesday afternoon following the news conference.

The Waco ISD decided earlier to delay the start of in-person instruction until after Sept. 7, but the order Verner issued Tuesday caught local educators, coaches and parents by surprise.

Verner said Wednesday he didn’t consult with area superintendents or athletic directors, but said his decision to issue the order was “based on epidemiological and public health issues.”

“Public health remains the overarching concern,” he said.

Suggestions circulating on social media that the timing of the order coincided with the announcement of the firing of Waco-McLennan County Public Health District Director Dr. Brenda Gray are unfounded, Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said during a virtual news conference Wednesday.

Deaver said the health district does have the authority to order the delay.

Verner’s order says each district in the county must submit a written plan on the resumption of in-person instruction and activities to the Health Authority by Aug. 21.

The order applies to “all public and private schools” in the county, but guidance issued last week by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton says such orders cannot be applied to private religious schools.

Verner’s order also says school-sponsored events and activities “including, but not limited to clubs, sports, fairs, exhibitions, academic and/or athletic competitions” can’t resume until after Sept. 7.

According to a document prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force first published by the Center for Public Integrity, Texas is one of 18 states in the coronavirus “Red Zone.”

Red Zone metro areas in Texas include not only the state’s largest cities and counties, but also Waco and McLennan County.

“Since June, we have seen a rapid increase in cases that really isn’t slowing down, we’ve also seen an increase in hospitalizations,” health district spokeswoman Kelly Craine said Tuesday.

“The concern is once school starts, we would have a similar scenario to what happened when businesses started to reopen in May and we would see even more cases,” she said.

Most districts in the county were planning to resume classes during the third week in August.

The Moody ISD, for example, was set to start classes on Aug. 18, but after the order was issued, did some recalculating.

“As soon as it was announced I called our school board president and we decided we had a good plan, we just need to change the dates,” Superintendent Gary Martel said Tuesday.

Martel says for now the district is looking to start online instruction on Aug. 18 and return to in-person instruction on Sept. 8 for students whose parents choose the option.

A survey of the district’s parents showed most wanted their children to receive on-campus instruction.

"Somewhere between 75% and 80% have chosen to come back to school," Martel said.

Martel says he understands there will be complaints no matter what plan they choose, but he says some kind of decision has to be made.

"There will be criticism, push back, but we have to make some kind of decision that is based on the factual information," says Martel.

“We need to make a decision, but as things change we need to be OK with adjusting that plan,” he said.

The Texas Education Agency announced Friday that districts may limit access to on-campus instruction for the first four weeks of the fall term and for an additional four weeks beyond that with a waiver from the agency.

The TEA guidance provides exemptions for students whose families lack internet access or devices to access the internet.

Earlier agency guidance allowed parents of students to opt for either on-campus instruction or remote instruction, but required them to commit to one or the other for a full grading period.

On July 16 the Texas Education Agency said state funding for public schools would not be affected by orders delaying the start of on-campus instruction because of the COVID-19 pandemic as long as remote learning was available.

Health officials in Dallas County, Travis County, Laredo and El Paso earlier ordered schools to remain closed to on-campus instruction until after Sept. 7.

(Rissa Shaw contributed to this story)

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