Health districts struggle to set threshold for school closures

School children
Posted at 10:27 PM, Aug 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-13 22:37:43-04

Local health districts across Central Texas say they have not been given serious guidance regarding their ability to shut down schools this fall.

In a statement on July 31, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced local health districts did not have the right to keep school districts from opening for the fall semester. However, the statement did grant them power to intervene should a school district experience a "outbreak."

So far, the state has not defined an outbreak, leaving health districts to determine proper intervention for themselves.

"It's not just what's going on in the school," Dr. Seth Sullivan with the Brazos Health Authority said. "It's also what's going on in the community, what's going on in the hospitals and what's going on with our positivity rates. There's so much going on here, which is why you aren't seeing these thresholds."

So far, no health district in Central Texas has publicly announced a threshold for shutting down schools, but Rogers ISD Superintendent Joe Craig told 25 News that Bell County Health Leaders have informed school districts they plan to investigate closing schools when two percent of their students and faculty test positive. Schools would not necessarily be required to shut down when they hit the two percent mark.

Crawford ISD Superintendent Kenneth Hall told 25 News his district is operating under the same understanding.

While a percentage-based threshold may seem like a good idea, implementing it as a blanket measure countywide puts smaller school districts at a major disadvantage.

For example, Midway High School in McLennan County had 2,448 students enrolled on campus in the fall of 2019. Under a two percent threshold, 49 students would have to test positive in order for the health district to intervene. At Mart High School, only three students would need to test positive, meaning the entire district could be asked to shut down because one family was infected.

"These percentages are a challenge. What's really important to know is what is the concentration in that class of active COVID," Sullivan said.

Conversely, solely using case count as a threshold could endanger students at smaller schools. If 122 students at Midway contracted the virus, only five percent of their student population would be affected. More than 75 percent of students at Mart would be affected by a similar case count.

"At the end of the day, these are gonna be made in collaboration," Sullivan said.

Bell County health officials said they meet weekly with superintendents across the county to discuss the latest guidelines and plans for schools going forward. Those meetings will be a major piece of any decision to close schools going forward.

The Waco-McLennan County Health District declined to comment until they received further instruction from state leaders.