Schools can stay open until coronavirus positivity rate hits 25%, Shelby County health department says

Christ Community Health Center medical staff collect nasal swabs as hundreds of Memphians line up for COVID-19 testing at the site in Hickory Hill in July. (Mark Weber / Daily Memphian)

Shelby County health officials say they won’t recommend closing schools or returning to a stay-at-home order until 25% of coronavirus tests in the community come back positive — a threshold dramatically higher than other cities across the nation.

By contrast, New York City’s mayor has said school buildings must shutter if the positivity rate exceeds 3%, and other school districts have vowed to limit in-person learning when the rate hits 5%.

While Shelby County’s guidelines mean that coronavirus infection rates would have to get a lot worse before the health department urges school buildings shut, the majority of students in the county won’t be returning to campuses just yet. That’s because Shelby County Schools is scheduled to begin online Aug. 31 and remain virtual until further notice. The district has not yet indicated what coronavirus case numbers would signal a safe return to school buildings or what would prompt recurring closures.

Some local charter schools, private schools, and suburban districts have already begun in-person learning or are planning to do so later this month. 

At the beginning of August, the county’s positivity rate was 15.4%, which means about one in every six coronavirus tests that week was positive. That’s down from a peak of 16.3% in mid-July, but is still high enough that the White House deemed the area a “red zone,” due to high infection rates.

Alisa Haushalter, the county health department director, said the 25% threshold was set through consensus of local infectious disease experts, health department officials, and leaders of the county’s “Back to Business” plan. She also said testing and hospital capacity would factor into decision-making. 

“Getting children back to school is a priority for many reasons,” she said in an email. “Decreasing community transmission impacts schools. We will aim to address community factors prior to closing schools.”

(Shelby County Health Department)

The department said that it would also advise closing schools if the county averages more than 750 new coronavirus cases per day during a week or the rate of new cases increases by more than 40% over two weeks. 

Elsewhere the thresholds are far lower. In Indianapolis, officials plan to limit in-person instruction if the positivity rate surpasses 5% and close school buildings entirely if the rate is higher than 13%. Many Colorado districts are leaning on state guidance for reopening businesses, which can occur if the positivity rate is less than 5%. 

Shelby County’s coronavirus positivity rate only dipped below 5% for one week in May, according to five months of health department data. 

Stephanie Love, a Shelby County Schools board member, said that there are too many cases in the county now for in-person learning to resume. And the district and the health department have not worked out basic contact tracing plans. (Two unnamed area schools will participate in a testing pilot program for teachers and students, the city announced Wednesday afternoon.)

“We have no plan in place that fully protects all our students and educators because we don’t know what they are walking in the building with,” she told Chalkbeat. “The protection infrastructure was not set up for everyone’s safety, in my opinion.” 

Based on the Shelby County Health Department’s guidance that went into effect Monday, schools would be among the last local buildings to close. If the county’s positivity rate hits 25%, the department would have already implemented a curfew, restricted sporting events, and closed some restaurants. 

Superintendent Joris Ray, left, and Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter speak with reporters in March. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

Currently, the department has ordered some bars to shutter temporarily and restaurants to close at 10 p.m. Religious gatherings are allowed, but health officials are urging places of worship to continue online services. The department is requiring other businesses to limit customers to 50% capacity. 

The city government and county health department have required masks in public indoor spaces, and Haushalter said that has contributed to a recent decrease in new cases.

“We are stable and have been stable for some weeks now and are running 250 to 300 cases per day, which was a significant decrease under the 500, 600, 700 that we have seen in July,” she told reporters Tuesday

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends schools consider closing if there is a “substantial, uncontrolled transmission” but does not define it.

“Communities can support schools staying open by implementing strategies that decrease a community’s level of transmission,” says the CDC guidance dated Aug. 1. “However, if community transmission levels cannot be decreased, school closure is an important consideration.”

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