Will the return of schooling be the region's biggest COVID-19 test yet?

Jonathan Roberts • Updated Jun 25, 2020 at 12:19 PM

Will the return of students to classrooms be the country’s biggest test for getting back to normal?

Local health experts seem to think so.

“If there’s going to be a test in terms of large numbers of people coming back, that’s where it’s going to be,” said Dr. Jonathan Moorman, East Tennessee State University’s top infectious disease expert. “Now, the good news is that most of those people, even if they get ill, will not be very ill, and we have plans in place to isolate and quarantine and all that to keep everybody contained as possible.

“But as you know, when you have large numbers of people together for that prolonged period of time, then I think the risk goes up,” he added.

Sullivan County Health Department Director Dr. Stephen May pointed to the reopening of schools as the biggest obstacle the country and region will face in returning to some sense of normalcy, despite a race at Bristol Motor Speedway next month that’s set to bring about 30,000 race fans to the track.

“My bigger anxiety comes into getting the schools back in session, mainly because I know that children are very, very efficient spreaders of disease, and they can be asymptomatic spreaders,” May said. “And when you start putting children into large groups without appropriate infection control right now, I think that will be the perfect milieu where you can infect say a whole classroom before you even realize what’s going on and they transmit it to the adults.

“Between the two, the most angst comes from getting our children back in schools,” May said.

Overwhelmingly, school-aged children and young adults have been less likely to catch the virus, and less likely to die as a result. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people 30 years old and younger have accounted for just 19% of all cases, and account for 0.3% of all deaths. In Tennessee, however, those numbers are higher at 35% and 1%, respectively.

Moorman said his primary concern isn’t that students coming back will die from the virus, but rather they will spread the virus, potentially sparking outbreaks and leading to more cases in higher risk populations, where death is much more likely.

“My major concern would be that we have people who are asymptomatic and shedding and they have the ability to spread to a lot of people,” Moorman said. He said that he’s “not worried about (students) dying, I’m worried about them spreading it and causing a huge surge of cases and then bringing it home to mamaw and then she dies — that’s what we’re worried about.”

On Tuesday, the Tennessee Department of Education released guidance on classroom layout when school returns, the latest guidance since the department first issued an overview guide for reopening schools on June 8.

As they prepare to reopen, Moorman said schools, school systems and universities will have to have detailed plans to prevent and handle any potential outbreak. A plan could include ways to keep people’s hands clean, have people socially distance, provide masks and potentially decrease class sizes, along with the implementation of alternating schedules to reduce person-to-person contact.

May said schools should take a good look at their policies for infection control and absenteeism, how they can take care of high-risk students, how they can isolate and quarantine students, alternative education methods and the ability to do partial school or classroom shutdowns.

ETSU officials, for example, said they will test everyone who lives in the the school’s residence halls, have ample testing with a low bar for testing and/or quarantining students and have a plan in place if it all falls apart to return to remote education.

In-person classes will also dismiss before Thanksgiving break, and classroom capacity will be significantly reduced.

“Every single place should, and probably is doing that to some degree,” Moorman said. He hopes the Johnson City school system follows some of ETSU’s procedures. “I’m interested in how the public schools are going to handle this.

“We want to be able to have school, and if we can keep it minimized we can do that,” Moorman also said, “we just have to make it to November.”

May said that students and parents shouldn’t expect schools to look like they did pre-pandemic.

“Even when schools do come back, it’s not going to be schools as before,” May said. “There will have to be major changes in the way that we deliver education — many of those changes we experimented and played with at the end of last year, but how long will we be able to sustain and maintain that?”

Moorman was frank in his assessment of the situation, saying it’s not good, great or ideal, “but all you can do is what you can do,” and that you can’t prevent all infection unless you keep schools closed.

“I’m worried about the intense social interaction that schools have, and people not really social distancing, and I think they won’t — young people won’t,” Moorman said.

“I think it will spread amongst them, and we can’t be stupid here — you’re going to have some cases and my concern is we won’t be able to contain, and that it will be out of control.”