(CBS NEWS) – As debate continues over when and how to safely reopen schools in the United States, one pressing question remains unanswered: At what point should a school close due to a COVID-19 outbreak in a given community.
In an interview with Surgeon General Jerome Adams Friday, “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan asked if parents should be looking at a specific positivity rate in their community.
“There is no hard cutoff right now, but in general, we like to see positivity rates less than 10% in a community,” the Surgeon General said. Currently, at least twelve states have positivity rates higher than 10%, including coronavirus hotspots like Texas, Arizona and Florida.
The CDC issued guidance in favor of reopening schools on Thursday, recommending that schools take into account the level of community transmission when deciding to close in-person learning.
The guidelines cite “the best available evidence indicates that COVID-19 poses relatively low risks to school-aged children,” but even White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx admitted on Friday that we don’t yet know how rapidly children spread the virus, saying this is “still an open question that needs to be studied in the United States.”
Despite concerns over transmission rates among children, top administration officials including Deputy Secretary of Education Dr. Mitchell Zais, emphasized Friday that heading into the fall, “the default needs to be that schools are fully open and operational.”
Those guidelines, however, have come under scrutiny by health experts who say local school districts will need to look elsewhere for any guidance not provided by the CDC.
“There might be circumstances in which school districts need to consider closing, at least temporarily, or go into a hybrid model that’s not really addressed in this document,” Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Friday.
“So I think school boards and school districts are going to need to look beyond just these CDC guidelines now at this point, because of things that weren’t addressed in the document to try to get a fuller picture on how to handle the fall,” Dr. Gottlieb explained.
With no specific benchmarks articulated by the CDC or other federal agencies to date, the Surgeon General’s remarks provide the first concrete piece of advice for parents in deciding when it’s safe to send their children back to school.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has said if he were in office, he would ask the CDC to set a benchmark infection rate to reopen schools and then set a point at which schools should shut down again if cases rise.
A shift in mitigation messaging
Following weeks of concerns raised by state and party officials, President Trump announced Thursday he is cancelling a portion of the Republican National Convention set to take place in Jacksonville, Florida next month, due to fast-rising numbers of coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths in the state.
On Friday, Florida surpassed the 400,000 mark in total COVID-19 cases.
In a sharp change in tone, the president acknowledged that in current coronavirus hotspots, school districts “may need to delay reopening for a few weeks,” emphasizing that the decision will be up to governors.
“The decision should be made based on the data and the facts on the grounds in each community, but every district should be actively making durations to open,” he told reporters Thursday.
The president had previously threatened to cut federal funding for school districts that don’t open for in-person learning in the fall. But in a coronavirus briefing this week, Mr. Trump pivoted, saying that funding will instead be shifted to “parents to send their child to public, private charter, religious or homeschool of their choice.”