Health officials recommend no in-person classes in Summit County schools

Sean McDonnell, Emily Mills, and Jennifer Pignolet
Beacon Journal
Nordonia Hills Superintendent Dr. Joe Clark sorts some of the 500 masks donated Monday to the school district by the United Methodist Church of Macedonia.

Summit County Public Health recommended Monday that local schools start the year online while also releasing several recommendations for schools that do return to class during the coronavirus pandemic.

New COVID-19 cases need to be on the decline before kids return to schools, but there has been a significant increase in local cases of late, the agency said in a Monday morning statement. That makes remote learning its preferred option for schools with grades K-12.

Akron Public Schools, Copley and Coventry are among districts to already announce online-only classes to start the year.

“We at Summit County Public Health understand the importance of students being in the classroom,” said Summit County Public Health Commissioner Donna Skoda. “However, these are very unprecedented and uncertain times. The novel COVID-19 virus continues to have large community spread and put many individuals at risk.”

The first — and preferred — option of remote learning would have the lowest risk for spread of COVID-19, the health district said.

The health district said it recognizes that students with special education, intervention and social/emotional learning needs would get better education in an in-person environment and said students should have those services but in small group settings.

“For the majority of children, being apart is better,” Skoda said.

The second option is a hybrid model of learning, where children could split time between home and school for learning. This option could include modified class sizes, mandatory masks for all students who don’t have an exemption and rigorous cleaning. It should also have 6 feet of social distance as much as possible.

The third option, with the highest risk for spread, would be returning with normal class sizes, five days a week. SCPH said extreme precautions should be taken if a school chooses this model, including keeping children 6 feet apart, mask wearing and rigorous cleaning.

“In that situation, it is ripe for the spread of disease,” Skoda said.

Guidance for schools

Skoda said the recommendation does not mean the agency wants all school districts to start online, as each district is unique when it comes to resources, building size and student population. It means only that remote learning has the lowest risk for disease transmission.

But if schools do have in-person learning, she expects a continued increase in cases.

“I think we’ll see an increase just because of people coming together,” she said. “Every time we’ve released a layer of a shutdown, we have seen a spike in cases, so I have no reason to believe this would be any different, particularly the way children like to engage with each other and are touchy and want to be together and run and hold hands.”

Nordonia Superintendent Joe Clark, president of the Akron Area School Superintendents’ Association, said the new recommendations mostly affirm plans districts have in place.

“I think that probably the recommendation is going to cause some districts to maybe go to a fully remote option,” Clark said. “I think it’s going to have other districts just reconfirm that their hybrid model is good to go with just another emphasis on maintaining social distance and proper hand-washing and making sure all folks have their masks.”

Nordonia is opting for a hybrid model where students come to school two days a week and learn from home the other three. About 20% of students have opted to learn entirely from home for the semester. Between that and the hybrid schedules, Clark said that gives students and staff plenty of room to spread out, achieving at least 6 feet of social distancing in most situations.

The recommendations came with specific metrics that would dictate when a return to school would be safe, including hospitalization rates and cases per-capita per day.

Akron school board President Patrick Bravo said the metrics are “some of the clearest guidance we’ve gotten that will assist us in deciding when to bring people back.”

The board voted at the end of last month to start the year fully remote for the first nine weeks.

Bravo noted the board wrestled with the decision, but given the city’s demographics and higher level of health needs, they did not feel comfortable bringing students and teachers back in person.

“We want to see the numbers going in the other direction,” Bravo said.

Local cases growing

SCPH said it will not recommend students return to school until the following happens:

? COVID-19 cases decline in Summit County for ideally four to six weeks. “In June we saw a decrease for three to four weeks and then saw another spike. We don’t think the three to four weeks will give us enough time to make sure that we are seeing a significant sustained decrease,” Skoda said.

? The county moves to yellow or Level 1 on the Ohio Public Health Advisory System. The county is currently as Level 2 (orange).

? There is increased testing capacity for youth.

? There is a decrease in hospitalizations, which SCPH says is a marker for community spread.

Many of the indicators SCPH needs to see lower are on their way up.

From July 26 to Aug. 8, new cases per capita were 117 cases per 100,000. This is two times the threshold the Ohio Department of Health set as an indicator for community spread.

Over the past month, SCPH said the seven-day case rate has been steady or increased, staying in the 6-9 cases per 100,000 range. SCPH said countries successfully opening schools have a rate of 3 cases per 100,000 or less.

From June 20 to July 20, the seven-day average increased from 9.3 to 36.6 cases per day. By July 31, it was at 48.9 cases per day in Summit County.

These increases all coincide with 93% of cases being from community spread, SCPH said. From July 8 to Aug. 4, only 82 of 1,126 cases were linked to congregate living settings.

Kids can spread virus

Although there have been only 271 cases in people under 19 in Summit County, the department has already investigated multiple outbreaks related to coaching or attending practices.

Testing for children under 18 also remains limited.

Summit County Public Health Medical Director Dr. Erika Sobolewski said much of the outpatient testing that’s currently available, like at pharmacies, is limited to those 18 and older.

That means children need to have a pediatrician to get tested, and that pediatrician has to have access to both test kits and lab capacity to get results.

Sobolewski said although children do tend to have milder cases of COVID-19, that makes it harder to tell if they have the disease. And they can still spread the virus.

“The problem is, great, they get over it like any other virus that may have come along, but in the meantime, they’re spreading it to how many other people, and then who are those people in contact with, and then things just continue down that spiral,” she said. “And the concern is those people being in contact with older adults, people who have decreased immune systems or have chronic diseases.”

Quarantining contacts of students or teachers who test positive would be done on a case-by-case basis, Skoda said. Sobolewski said those who would need to quarantine would be close contacts — those fewer than 6 feet from the person for more than 15 minutes, with Summit County Public Health doing contact tracing.

SCPH said school districts need to remain nimble and modify strategies on a real-time basis to ensure everyone’s safety.

Parents should know school districts have worked hard on their reopening plans, Skoda said.

But parents also need to be a role model for their children and set good examples by teaching them about wearing a mask and frequent hand-washing, saying it “goes a long way in how successful the schools will be.”

“If they hear a parent talk about how they hate a mask and they don’t want to wear a mask, then they too are gonna believe that’s the appropriate attitude,” Skoda said. “So I think we need to think about keeping our schools open, everyone doing their part and whether or not you hate it, say you love it because it makes a big difference in the outcome.”

Contact reporters Jennifer Pignolet at jpignolet@thebeaconjournal.com, Emily Mills at emills@thebeaconjournal.com and Sean McDonnell at smcdonnell@thebeaconjournal.com.

An assortment of the 500 masks donated to the Nordonia Hills City Schools by the United Methodist Church of Macedonia.