Infectious disease experts agree school setting could aid in COVID-19 transmission

Local experts concerned about increase in COVID-19 cases once schools reopen

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Public health officials have said the county is at a stabilization point with roughly 400 new cases of COVID-19 a day. But is that number of cases too high for schools to reopen in person?

“More than just the kids in the school, though, there are other people to protect. There are teachers,” said Dr. Steve Threlkeld, an infectious disease specialist at Baptist. “Probably the biggest danger of the schools being open, it perpetuates the circulation of this virus in the community.”

Threlkeld said Monday he cannot fault Shelby County Schools for starting the school year virtually, becoming the first of the county’s school districts to take such a stance.

Shelby Co. Schools returning call to go all virtual in August

“It’s hard to criticize that decision based on the fact that we are still in the middle of a lot of transmission locally,” he said.

Threlkeld said in-person schooling could continue the spread of the virus locally so much so that the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic never goes away as we approach flu season.

Both he and Dr. Manoj Jain, who’s a member of the city-county COVID-19 task force, pointed to emerging research from South Korea that indicates children older than ten may be able to spread the virus as efficiently as adults.

“Children can bring the infection home to their parents, and more worrisome, to their grandparents,” said Jain. “And when that happens, then we will have a greater number of elderly folks who will become sick and be admitted to the hospital.”

Jain said current modeling suggests the county will see a peak of cases in October. Recent actions by the Shelby County Health Department like curbing restaurant hours and closing some restaurants were taken to slow the community spread of the virus.

“This is a big experiment across the nation,” said Jain. ”When we open up schools in the midst of all of this, it just adds a higher level of uncertainty. And we want the situation to be more controlled before we add children into the mix, and we could be spreading the virus at a greater number.”

Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter said last week, cases of COVID-19 in the county are expected to increase as schools reopen.

The department said Monday that the health department is serving in an advisory role to provide technical support to all the school systems in the county, with decisions about reopening up to each school district.

Health concerns surrounding kids going back to school

Threlkeld said if parents choose to send their children back to in-person learning, they should ask districts how they plan to contact trace when there is an outbreak. Required 14-day quarantines for those exposed to a confirmed positive case could affect the district’s ability to adequately staff facilities.

“When you have 10, 20, 30 cases that develop, what are the plans on what to do then,” he said.

Parents are also feeling the stress of the moment.

“Certainly it puts parents in a position to think what am I going to do now,” said Dr. Renee Wilson-Simmons.

Wilson-Simmons is a child development expert and leads the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Foundation of Memphis. She said parents should be reminded they are not alone and seek resources for help if they are feeling overwhelmed.

“Parents need some supports to get through this. They’re struggling with the challenges to figure out online learning, how to even get that connected, and then figure out how to support their children for not just learning but the kinds of social connections they need,” she said.

ACE has a number of locations in Memphis called Universal Parenting Places that offer counseling, information, and emotional support for parents. Because of COVID-19, they are operating virtually, but they have licensed professionals for parents to speak with. You can find contact information here.

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