School districts should consider delaying sports programs, return groups of students to in-person classes in stages and allow 10 days between each wave to give time for the coronavirus to incubate, Dr. Philip Keiser, Galveston County’s local health authority, said in a list of recommendations he released late Friday.
Keiser’s recommendations come as school districts across Galveston County and the state are crafting plans to reopen campuses to in-person teaching in the new school year.
District officials must balance the benefits students receive from in-person classes with the dangers still posed by the coronavirus pandemic, Keiser warned.
Given the rates of transmission, cases of COVID-19 inevitably will develop among students, Keiser said. Galveston County as of Friday has recorded more than 8,000 cases of the virus, with 78 hospitalizations and 73 deaths.
That means about one of every 10 county residents has coronavirus and is transmitting it, Keiser said.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton this week also weighed in, releasing legal guidance arguing school officials — not local health officials — have ultimate authority about whether to close schools to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, according to The Associated Press.
Keiser in his guidance acknowledges Paxton’s guidance, pointing out that the advice allows health district officials to order limited quarantines in response to outbreaks at a specific school.
The percentage of positive cases has stabilized at 9 percent for the past two weeks, officials said. There is no optimal threshold for numbers or percentage of cases for reopening schools, according to the recommendations.
To combat a rise in cases locally, school districts should follow all guidelines set out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Texas Education Agency, Keiser said.
Although the two sets of guidelines contain some differences, each recommends social distancing in the classrooms, grouping students, maintaining small class sizes, universal masking, excluding sick children and employees, consistent cleaning of rooms and surfaces, following guidelines for food service and cafeterias and limiting visitors to campus, among others.
In addition to those recommendations, districts should also delay the opening of brick-and-mortar schools for as long as possible under Texas Education Agency guidelines, he said. Those guidelines require districts to provide face-to-face learning for students whose parents demand it within eight weeks or face a loss of funding.
Districts that are staggering reopenings should allow 10 days between each wave of students, Keiser said. Districts should delay sports programs and develop a detailed response plan for cases in schools.
Districts are also required to notify the health district of any known or suspected cases, send those people home, keep a seating chart for each class and work with the health district on contact tracing and isolation of cases and contacts, officials said.
School openings are among the most recent points of conflict in the ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Clear Creek Independent School District, for instance, this week announced it will proceed with reopening plans despite a Harris County order that would have delayed the opening for about a week. Some of the district’s schools are in Harris County and others are inGalveston County.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on July 22 issued a health order prohibiting schools from opening before Sept. 8 but said it could extend beyond that.
Galveston County, meanwhile, doesn’t have such an order in place.
Clear Creek’s reopening plan had been to host all students online starting Aug. 24, and then all in-person learning would return by Sept. 8.
But pre-kindergartners, kindergartners, sixth graders, ninth graders and special education students were set to return to in-person classes Aug. 31, which would be before Hidalgo’s order allows.