Another record-setting day amid a resurgence of Covid-19 cases has forced states to revisit contingency plans to safely reopen US schools.
With the nation’s school systems in an upheaval since the pandemic began, several governors are beginning to take sides in the debate between key national leaders pushing for children to attend classes in person and many local officials hesitant to congregate students before it is safe.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has put out guidelines for reopening schools and will soon release more tools to help administrators and parents make decisions. But it is ultimately up to the school districts to decide what is the safest course of action for them, director Dr. Robert Redfield told CNN on Thursday night.
“We all want to protect the safety of the children that are in schools,” Redfield said. “There’s really a public health crisis. We are paying by not having these schools open, and I think we really need to get that balance.”
President Trump on Friday reiterated his school funding threat in a morning tweet. He has advocated for reopening states amid surging cases.
“Schools must be open in the Fall. If not open, why would the Federal Government give Funding? It won’t!!!” he tweeted.
More than 90% of schools money comes from state and local levels, but schools receive targeted dollars from the US Department of Education. The money often affects the country’s most vulnerable students.
Thursday brought 63,247 new Covid-19 cases, a record for a single day, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The new high comes as many states set records in infection rates and hospitalizations and 33 states saw an increase in new cases reported compared to last week.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told reporters the numbers will determine if the state has to go back a phase in its reopening plan, in which case students may not return to the classroom as currently planned.
Arkansas has pushed the first day of school back from August 13 to 24 to give districts time to adjust to a blended learning plan, Gov. Asa Hutchinson told reporters Thursday.
In Florida, with its particularly high instances of new cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Ron DeSantis weighed the increase of cases against the education gap that can come from students learning at home. If Home Depot and Walmart can be open, so can schools, he said.
And though the American Academy of Pediatrics ultimately wants students to be back in school, Florida’s statewide mandate to reopen schools goes against its recommendations, President Dr. Sally Goza said in an interview Wednesday morning on NPR.
“We know that it has to be safe, and we know that we have to try to decrease that transmission as much as we can,” Goza said.
Adults, not children, appear to be key to spreading the coronavirus. Schools should give “serious consideration” to staying open even when the virus is spreading, two pediatric infectious disease specialists wrote Friday in the medical journal Pediatrics.
“Almost 6 months into the pandemic, accumulating evidence and collective experience argue that children, particularly school-aged children, are far less important drivers of (coronavirus) transmission than adults,” said Drs. Benjamin Lee and William Raszka Jr. of the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.
It’s not clear why children would be less likely to transmit the virus to adults or other children. Lee and Raszka wrote that children may have milder symptoms, releasing fewer infectious particles, or they may have had few opportunities to become infected, since many schools closed around the time physical distancing orders began.
Schools, Lee and Raszka write, “may be less important in community transmission than initially feared.”
Staggering US numbers show pandemic isn’t over
States have relaxed restrictions, and more people have gathered in public spaces. But the nation’s leading infectious disease expert warned Americans throughout the week that the nation is still “knee deep” in the first wave.
“We’ve never really gotten out of it,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said in an interview with SiriusXM Doctor Radio airing on Friday.
Dr. Peter Hotez says he’s so alarmed by the rising numbers that he has a hard time sleeping.
“One (reason) is this steep acceleration,” Hotez, dean of tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine , told CNN on Friday morning. “We’re approaching (Fauci’s) apocalyptic prediction of 100,000 cases a day.”
These rising cases are associated with increased hospitalizations and ICU use, he said. Hospital staff members are exhausted and falling ill too often.
“There is no national strategy,” he said, “and no interest in even inaugurating any national road map… We’re in an emergency. We absolutely have to go to a lock down in multiple states.”
North Carolina set a record Thursday for the highest number of hospitalizations and posted the second highest number of cases for the state, Gov. Roy Cooper said.
“Though North Carolina isn’t a surging hotspot like some other states, we could be if we don’t stay strong in our fight,” he said.
Texas and California had the highest number of coronavirus deaths in a day. Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott does not anticipate next week will bring any relief.
“We need to make sure that there’s going to be plenty of hospital beds available in the Houston area,” Abbott said on KRIV-TV.
Experts say US can stay open — strategically
While it’s impossible to maintain stringent coronavirus restrictions and return to a sense of normalcy, there is a middle ground, Fauci said.
“Rather than think in terms of reverting back down to a complete shutdown, I would think we need to get the states pausing in their opening process. Looking at what did not work well and try to mitigate that,” the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease told The Hill’s Editor-at-Large Steve Clemons.
The all-or-nothing approach to socialization, and in Florida’s case reopening too fast, contributed to the return of the virus, Fauci said on Podcast-19, FiveThirtyEight’s weekly podcast on Covid-19.
“There are some governors and mayors that did it perfectly correctly,” he said. “But what happened is that many of the citizenry, said, ‘You know, well, I’m either going to be locked down or I’m going to let it all rip.’ “
Fauci has stressed the risk in congregating, and he recommended Thursday that the nation reevaluate recommendations on when to reopen bars and indoor restaurants, saying they pose one of the “real problems.”
Even with the restrictions currently in place, only half of Nevada’s bars were found to be in compliance, said Gov. Steve Sisolak. As of 11:59 p.m. local time on Friday, bars in certain counties will revert to similar restrictions in Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan.
Precautions become mandates in ‘a fight for our lives’
Local leaders are moving from encouraging precautions like masks to mandating them.
At least 36 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have a mask order, and some cities require them even when their states don’t.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves made masks mandatory Thursday for the 13 counties seeing the greatest spikes. Businesses will not be required to shut down, but social distancing also will be required in those counties.
“Mississippi is in a fight for our lives,” he said.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis told reporters Thursday that wearing a mask saves both lives and businesses from shutting down.
“If you are waiting to wear a mask until the Governor tells you to,” Polis said, “I hope you’ve heard that I’m telling you, and I’ve made it clear. Wear a d*** mask.