Harris County schools should remain closed to in-person classes until the local spread of COVID-19 is significantly curbed and strict benchmarks are met, Judge Lina Hidalgo said Wednesday as she unveiled new recommendations for reopening campuses.
Nearly two weeks after Gov. Greg Abbott wrested power over school closures away from local government leaders, Hidalgo released metrics designed to help local superintendents and school boards decide when to resume face-to-face instruction. The benchmarks are more strict than those released by other local American governments and health organizations in the U.S., illustrating the county’s frequently cautious approach to resuming normal activities amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“We simply cannot responsibly reopen schools to in-person instruction right now,” Hidalgo said, acknowledging the frustration of parents, teachers and others. “But we can’t ignore this. We can’t tap our heels together and wish the current numbers away.”
In their recommendations, Hidalgo and county health officials said schools should remain online-only as long as Harris County, across a 14-day span, records more than 400 new COVID-19 cases per day, remains above a 5 percent test positivity rate or continues to devote more than 15 percent of hospital beds to COVID-19 patients, among other metrics.
Harris County averaged about 1,100 new confirmed cases each day over the past week, while its test positivity rate hovered at about 15 percent. Nearly one-third of ICU beds held COVID-19 patients.
School districts are advised to reopen with reduced numbers — the lesser of 25 percent capacity or 500 students at first, then the lesser of 50 percent capacity or 1,000 students as the situation improves — once the county falls below those targets and maintains its progress.
The reopening of schools has turned into a political tug-of-war in recent weeks, highlighted in Texas by Abbott declaring local health authorities do not have the power to preemptively close campuses as a method of reducing COVID-19 spread. His decision came as Texas continued to battle one of the nation’s largest outbreaks, though case and hospitalization data suggest the state has made progress over the last few weeks.
While Hidalgo cannot keep campuses closed to start the 2020-21 school year, some local school leaders called for the county to issue clear COVID-19 outbreak benchmarks for when it’s safe to reopen schools.
The county’s position sets the stage for a clash between Hidalgo and some local education leaders, who argue the benefits of resuming in-person classes outweigh the potential public health risks.
Humble ISD remains on track to begin hosting a limited number of students on Monday, Clear Creek ISD is scheduled to welcome back about one-quarter of students on Aug. 31 and several districts hope to bring back children after Labor Day.
“The bad thing for us is we’re kind of caught between a state that wants us to open no matter what, and a county that wants us to close no matter what,” said Cy-Fair ISD Superintendent Mark Henry, who leads the region’s second-largest school district and remains committed to hosting in-person classes starting Sept. 8.
Harris County officials are recommending schools remain closed longer than some other states and prominent groups setting looser guidelines for reopening, reflected in Hidalgo declaring that “it won’t be safe any time in the near future” to host in-person classes.
Researchers at Harvard’s Global Health Institute recommended that schools could begin to partially reopen once daily case counts total about 25 per 100,000 residents — nearly three times higher than Harris County’s metric of about 8.5 per 100,000 — and other measurements are taken into account.
In Pennsylvania, which is led by a Democratic governor, state officials recommended partially reopening schools in areas that reported about a daily average of about 14 new cases per 100,000 people over a week-long stretch or a test positivity rate under 10 percent.
In San Antonio, the local health authority suggested in-person classes could partially resume once the region sees a two-week continuous decline in new cases and the test positivity rate dips below 10 percent.
Hidalgo and county health officials said their metrics will be presented using the county’s existing COVID-19 “threat level system” — a color-coded mechanism the county is using to advise residents on the severity of the pandemic — and are based in part on models used in other states and countries.
Tying school reopenings to the county’s threat-level system “takes out the politics and focuses on the data,” Hidalgo said.
“It provides a common playbook that all schools in Harris County and everyone in our community can use,” she said.
Harris County Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah said county officials based the guidance on “information we have reviewed across the country and across the globe.” Many countries that reopened schools in Europe and Asia following spring outbreaks had cut their daily new case counts below 1 per 100,000 residents — though the number of confirmed cases is partially dependent on testing rates.
Shah also cautioned against reopening prematurely, referring to reports of a school district in Georgia where more than 900 students and staff members have been ordered to quarantine and schools have re-shuttered after the district reopened and students swiftly began contracting the virus.
“This info continues to evolve and we will continue to evolve with it,” Shah said. “As data changes, we may come back with evolving guidance.”
Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, speaking Wednesday on 88.7-FM, said county officials consulted with superintendents across the region before releasing their guidance.
“Looking at some of the possible metrics, it does give us a roadmap of where we should be headed and what we need to do to get students back face-to-face,” said Lathan, who opted to keep students online-only through at least mid-October.
All public school families can choose to remain in virtual-only classes indefinitely. Districts can require staff members to return to work in-person, though employees can receive accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act and other workplace laws.
This story was originally published by The Houston Chronicle.