SUMMIT COUNTY, Ohio — Summit County Public Health announced its recommendations for opening K-12 schools in the county amid a high transmission rate of COVID-19 and multiple outbreaks involving children and teens—and the safest option is remote learning, according to SCPH.
Ultimately though, SCPH officials said it will be up to individual districts to decide how to start the school year.
“Some districts have the resources, the building size, the student population,” Donna Skoda said. “Some districts are very large and some are very small, so each of them have individualized factors.”
When making its recommendation, SCPH looked at county data involving the number of daily cases of COVID-19, the type of spread the county is facing, the number of children and teens that have tested positive for the virus in the county and hospitalization and ICU numbers.
"It is difficult to contact trace. It is difficult to identify those who are ill,” Skoda said. “And it is very difficult to stop the spread.”
SCPH said it strongly recommends Summit County K-12 schools begin the school year in a remote learning environment. Students with special education, intervention or social or emotional learning needs who are best taught in-person are encouraged to be given access to that, but in small group settings during the remote learning period.
“We understand for the majority of children, being apart is better,” Skoda said.
Fall sports are still recommended to be delayed, according to SCPH.
The second option SCPH recommends for the 2020-2021 school year is a hybrid model where children split time between home and school for remote and in-person learning, including modified class sizes, strict cleaning, social distancing and mandatory masks for all students who don’t have an exemption.
SCPH said that while some schools in communities with low COVID-19 transmission rates may be able to reopen schools with low risk, Summit County is not a community in which there is low transmission rates, citing an ongoing increase of daily cases.
From June 20 to July 20, the seven-day average case count increased from 9.3 to 36.6 cases per day. From July 1 to July 31, the seven-day average case count increased from 23.9 to 48.9 cases per day, SCPH said.
Over the last two weeks, Summit County has reported 117 cases per 100,000, two times over the threshold designated by the Ohio Department of Health as an indicator of high COVID-19 transmission. The county was between orange Level 2 and red Level 3 on the state’s Public Health Advisory System throughout the month of July.
Between July 7 and Aug. 8, the seven-day average case rate per 100,000 has remained steady or increased and is in the six to nine cases per 100,000 range. SCPH said in other countries that are seeing successful school reopenings, the rate is around three cases per 100,000 or less.
In Summit County, 93% of COVID-19 cases have been linked back to non-congregate settings and have been determined to be from community spread.
SCPH noted that 271 children and teens 19 years old or younger have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county and said an area of concern is the limited testing availability for children under the age of 18.
“Certainly that child who tests positive would go into isolation and would need to meet CDC criteria to be re-released back into the classroom,” Medical Director Erika Sobolewski said.
Sobolewski said testing capacity for children is an area of major concern.
“One, they have to have a primary care provider or pediatrician and then that pediatrician or primary care provider needs to be able to have the testing kits and the laboratory ability to have that,” Sobolewski said.
The county has recently investigated multiple situations and outbreaks of reported COVID-19 cases from coaching and or attending practices and those cases were oftentimes involved with other activities as well.
SCPH said that the highest risk for the return to school would be in-person education five days a week with no modification to class size. If schools do opt for that, SCPH said that extreme precautions would need to be implemented to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including mandatory mask wearing, social distancing and rigorous cleaning.
“That means bringing everything back just like it was when you closed up,” Skoda said. “But in that situation, it is ripe for the spread of disease.”