JoCo health officials say safe in-person learning won’t be possible without improvements in COVID-19 situation

Sanmi Areola joined other county health officials in a Facebook Live town hall on Thursday to discuss the possible reopening guidelines for K-12 schools in the area. As it stands now, the local COVID-19 situation would not allow for the safe reopening of schools, Areola warned, but there’s still time to correct the course. Screen shot via Johnson County Government.

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Johnson County Department of Health and Environment Director Sanmi Areola, PhD, said if the local COVID-19 situation doesn’t change soon, it will not be possible to open schools safely for in-person classes at all levels in the fall.

“Collectively as a society, we have a responsibility to reduce infection rates and break the transmission cycle in Johnson County,” Areola said, during a Facebook Live town hall Thursday. “We cannot open schools if we are getting 100 [new] cases a day, we cannot open schools at a 9% [positivity] rate — we need to bring that down.”

The rate of community transmission will play a big role in determining the best option for education, Areola said, as is outlined in the tentative recommendations released earlier this week by the health department. 

Megan Foreman, program manager at JCDHE, said the current rate of positivity would force school districts to open in the “yellow phase” of the proposed plan.

Per the tentative gating criteria, a hybrid learning model for middle and high schoolers would be necessary, and limitations to co-curricular activities at all ages might be necessary. At that stage, elementary school students would be permitted to continue in-person classes.

“The bottom line is, we have a few weeks before the schools decide on how they are going to open and the target has to be to lower the positivity rate and to bring it down to as low as we can. The higher it is, the higher the risk,” Areola said. “If we want schools to open in the least restrictive way possible, this is the time to act.”

To ensure children can return to school for face-to-face classes safely, Areola warned families to think hard before going out to eat and engaging in other activities that can lead to higher rates of transmission.

WHAT IN-PERSON EDUCATION REALLY MEANS

Even if schools can open in the fall for face-to-face instruction, it won’t just be “business as usual,” Foreman said. Parents and students at all ages can expect changes to most aspects of the school day, including how lunch hours and passing periods work.

“This is not a simple situation, it is very complex,” Foreman said.

The degree to which these operations are affected might depend on the age of a student. Younger students are less likely to transmit COVID-19 to others, but also spend more time in a stable group that is easier to control spread within, Elizabeth Holzschuh, JCHDE epidemiologist, said.

No matter how many precautions are taken at schools and in students’ homes, people will still get COVID-19, Areola and Holzschuh both said.

“We cannot completely eliminate the risk,” Areola said. “All of us — public health professionals, parents, pediatricians, teachers — we all are working toward the same goal. We want our children to be in school, but want them to be in school in a safe manner.”

Formal decisions about gating criteria, reopening recommendations and other guidelines for schools won’t be finalized until the week of Aug. 17.