Summit County’s schools are reopening this week, and everyone is hoping for the best, but reports of other school districts across the country that have opened for class – only to be closed to in-person teaching when the numbers of COVID-019 cases began to surge – are concerning.
Summit County’s Health Director, Rich Bullough, says while precautions have been taken, it’s up to students and staff to be diligent about wearing masks and social distancing to ensure that at-school learning continues.
Perhaps the biggest lesson students will learn this year is one of personal responsibility. Wearing masks properly, washing their hands and keeping their distance from friends and classmates won’t be easy – but will be necessary – says Bullough.
“The parents need to model this, and they need to monitor whether or not their kids, their students, are complying,” he said. “Honestly, we’ve not seen great compliance in youth and that’s one of the reasons the numbers have gone up in youth. Most of us have heard that it is young people that are driving this spread of COVID-19 right now. They’re being irresponsible by gathering in groups and not socially distancing and not wearing a mask and I get it. You know we all think back to when we were teens, nothing applies to us. But this applies to them and if they want to be in school, if they want to have a sports season, they need to comply – they need to take it seriously.”
Nothing will be completely safe, he says – this is about managing risk and finding a balance that allow schools and businesses to remain open.
“We do expect some COVID-19 cases to come out of the schools,” he said. “And like everything else, again businesses being an example, we’re trying to find where that balance is relative to not completely eliminating COVID-19 in the community but managing it as best we can.”
Even though the health department can mandate how many patrons can be in a restaurant, Bullough doesn’t have that authority in schools. Certainly, he says, this is a community public health issue – but legally, it’s a school board decision.
The health department is only responsible for case investigations, contract tracing and helping with the plans.
The best the health department can do, he says, is to mitigate the risk – not eliminate it.
“The best bet for our schools staying open, and I believe this very strongly, is for the students, faculty, teachers, everybody present to wear their face coverings because there are going to be instances, and we all recognize it, that the 6 feet social distancing won’t be maintained.”
The surges of cases seen in Summit County have typically been associated with events – and he says it will be the same with the opening of schools. The state is preparing some standards to deal with a possible surge.
“Right now, the numbers that the state is working with are that if there are three cases in any given classroom – that classroom will go to remote learning,” Bullough said. “If there are 10% of the student body who test positive, or 15 total cases in a school, whichever number is smaller, that’s school will go remote. And I want to stress the word remote – because there is no talk of closing schools. Learning is going to continue. It’s just whether or not that learning is going to be in-person or remotely.”
Everyone he says has tried their best to make this work safely – but he can’t make any guarantees.