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August 4, 2020

Schools and summer camps are reopening—and the coronavirus is spreading fast

Daily Briefing

    Camps and schools that reopened for in-person activities in Georgia, Indiana, and Mississippi have had to close, shift to virtual participation, or implement other emergency health measures in the wake of novel coronavirus outbreaks.

    Your checklist for reopening offices to administrative staff

    Public health experts say the cases highlight children's role in spreading the virus—and the risks of reopening schools this fall, which has become a subject of intense debate in America. President Trump and his administration have been vocal about wanting schools to reopen this fall, and CDC last month released guidance emphasizing the importance of schools reopening to provide students with in-person instruction. Some state and local officials and some public health experts also have issued sharp calls for schools to reopen.

    But not all state and local officials or public health experts agree, and many teachers and parents are hesitant for schools to resume in-person classes amid America's coronavirus epidemic, which hit a new peak in recent weeks. Further, evidence increasingly is indicating that children could play a significant role in community spread of the virus, particularly if they return to school.

    Coronavirus spreads to hundreds at a Georgia summer camp within 1 week

    For example, CDC on Friday released a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report detailing how the novel coronavirus spread at an overnight summer camp in Georgia, affecting hundreds of people within one week.

    According to the report, the camp opened and held orientation for 120 staff members and 138 trainees from June 17 to June 20. The trainees left the camp on June 21, but 363 campers and three senior staff members joined the other 120 employees at the camp on that day. The median age of the campers was 12 years, with a range of ages six to 19 years, and the median age of staff members was 17, with a range of ages 14 to 59.

    CDC in the report noted that the camp had followed all requirements outlined under state mandates that allowed camps to reopen, including having all campers, staff, and trainees provide documents confirming they tested negative for the coronavirus no more than 12 days before arriving at the camp. In addition, the camp required attendees to maintain physical distance from each other when outside of cabins, though the cabins each held an average of 15 occupants from June 21 to June 27.

    The camp also observed most of CDC's guidelines for safely opening youth and summer camps, though the camp did not require campers to wear face masks or coverings and did not open doors and windows to increase buildings' ventilation, according to the report. The camp did require staff to wear face masks or coverings.

    On June 23, a teenaged staff member left the camp after developing chills the prior evening, and the staff member tested positive for the coronavirus on June 24. Camp officials began sending campers home on June 24, and the camp closed on June 27. Georgia's Department of Public Health began an investigation into the matter on June 25 and recommended that all attendees at the camp be tested for the coronavirus and self-isolate at least until they received a negative test result.

    CDC was able to access coronavirus test results for 344 of the campers and staff members who had attended the camp. Of those, 76%, or 260, tested positive for the coronavirus within 14 days of leaving the camp. According to the report:

    • 51% of those who tested positive were 6 to 10 years old;
    • 44% were 11 to 17 years old; and
    • 33% were 18 to 21 years old.

    CDC said the "findings demonstrate that [the novel coronavirus] spread efficiently in a youth-centric overnight setting … despite efforts by camp officials to implement most recommended strategies to prevent transmission." Further, CDC said the event "adds to the body of evidence demonstrating that children of all ages are susceptible to [coronavirus] infection … and, contrary to early reports … might play an important role in transmission."

    Outbreaks force schools to close, shift to virtual learning

    Some schools that reopened also have had to isolate students, close, or shift to virtual learning because of coronavirus outbreaks.

    In Indiana, Greenfield Central Junior High School reopened for in-person classes on July 30. School administrators urged families not to send students to school if they were experiencing symptoms of Covid-19 or if they were waiting on coronavirus test results. The school also required students to wear masks unless they were eating or were participating in physical education outside of the building.

    But within hours of reopening, the school received a call from the county health department reporting that a student at the school, who already had walked through the building's hallways and had been in multiple classrooms, had tested positive for the coronavirus, the New York Times reports.

    Immediately after being notified of the student's test result, administrators at the school implemented an emergency protocol and isolated the student. Administrators also instructed everyone who had been within six feet of the student for more than 15 minutes to self-isolate for 14 days, Harold Olin, superintendent of the Greenfield-Central Community School Corporation, said. According to the Times, it's not known whether the student at Greenfield Central Junior High School who tested positive for the coronavirus infected anyone else at the school.

    Olin said administrators knew having someone infected with the coronavirus at the school was a matter of "when, not if," but he added that he was "very shocked it was on day 1." Still, Olin said, "It really doesn't change my opinion about whether we should start or not." He added, "If we get down the road and realize that we need to make some adjustments, we're not opposed to that."

    Elsewhere in Indiana, the superintendent of the Elwood Community School Corporation on Saturday announced that students in seventh through 12th grade will have to spend the rest of this week taking classes remotely, after several staff members tested positive for the coronavirus after just two days of in-person lessons. According to the Times, officials intend to resume in-person lessons as early as next week.

    Troy Abbott—president of the Board of Health for Madison County, which includes Elwood—said the plan was appropriate. He explained that, in the absence of state mandates, the county has advised schools to remain open unless they surpass 24 cases of infection per day over a week-long time period. "We don't have a vaccine, and I don't know we should wait around for a vaccine," he said.

    However, Harry Heiman, a clinical associate professor of health policy and behavioral sciences at Georgia State University, expressed more caution. Noting that "every child [whom] I know lives in a home with an adult," Heiman added, "The idea that you can safely reopen schools and not in fact worsen spread is not based on science. … It's based on wishful thinking." 

    Meanwhile, back in Georgia, teachers in Gwinnett County—which holds the state's largest school system—returned to work on Wednesday in anticipation of launching remote classes on Aug. 12. However, on Thursday, about 260 employees had to be excluded from their places of work because they had either tested positive for the coronavirus or had been potentially exposed to someone who was infected.

    Sloan Roach, a spokesperson for the school district, said most of the cases were linked to community spread.

    And in Pickens County, Georgia, the school district had to postpone the start of classes for two weeks, until Aug. 17, after staff members who gathered for training at an elementary school exhibited symptoms of Covid-19.

    Meanwhile, at Corinth High School in Mississippi, three students have tested positive for the coronavirus since in-person classes resumed last week, and another 40 are in quarantine—and that's despite efforts by the school to limit infection, including seating charts designed to minimize contact with others and certain classes being offering in large, open spaces, such as the cafeteria.

    Lee Childress, the district's superintendent, said that while he's "never experienced anything like this," he felt comfortable forging ahead with the planned start date because "every school is going to have to address" the issue no matter when they decide to open (Mervosh/Hubler, New York Times, 8/3; Rabin, New York Times, 7/31; Shapiro et. al., New York Times, 8/1; Hellmann, The Hill, 7/31; CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report; 7/31; Shepherd, "Morning Mix," Washington Post, 8/4).

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