While the nation’s goal should be getting children back to school, there’s a “big ‘however’ there,” NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, MD, told Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) during a Facebook Live event Thursday.
“The ‘however’ is that the primary consideration should always be the safety, health, and welfare of the children and teachers, and the families of both of those groups,” Fauci said.
Fauci pointed to the country’s heterogeneity as the reason for confusion about school reopenings and noted that public health officials have designated zones as either red, yellow, or green to aid determinations about allowing students back into classrooms.
Green zones, like many in Rhode Island, have a test positivity rate lower than 5% and fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 residents, and “should be able to open up safe and clear,” as long as they have good surveillance and contact tracing and isolation in place, Fauci said.
Yellow zones have a 5% to 10% test positivity rate and 10 to 100 cases per 100,000, while red zones are above a 10% test positivity rate with more than 100 cases per 100,000.
“The best way for a state, city, or county that’s red to get their children back to school is to do what’s needed to become yellow, and do what’s needed to become green,” Fauci said.
“If you are a red state and you want to get your schools open, you can ask yourself the question — you have a choice. You can either close the bars or close the schools,” Fauci said. “If you want to have people congregating in bars, it’s likely you’re going to stay red. If you do something about that, it’s very likely you’ll transition to yellow or green.”
Of course, Fauci warned, even in green areas, “there will always be cases. But how you prevent those blips of cases from becoming something that obviates the whole program, that’s what you’re preparing for.”
“I think people need to appreciate that nothing is 100%; it’s how you respond to the outlier that counts,” Fauci said.
Raimondo noted that even in the green state of Rhode Island, teachers and families are nervous about getting back into the classroom. To ease that anxiety, Fauci said that communities need to be “doing everything we can to keep the community green.”
“Your responsibility doesn’t end at the schoolroom door, it’s throughout your entire existence,” Fauci said. “To say, ‘I want my child to be safe in school,’ or, ‘I want to be the teacher who feels safe in school,’ then when you go home you go inside and have a party with 30 of your best friends with no mask, that doesn’t make sense.”
Raimondo said Rhode Island is on track to reopen schools on Sept. 14, but some areas are not “green” and if they remain so they will be advised to begin with hybrid learning until they transition to green. In those cases, younger children will be able to start with in-person instruction but older children will have virtual classes. “We learned that high schools did better with distance learning while younger kids really struggled,” she said.
She also plans to use the next month to shore up testing and said schools won’t open until test turnaround time can be in the range of 48 to 72 hours.
When schools reopen, Fauci recommended a number of steps to keep infections down, such as being outdoors as much as possible, using masks, enforcing social distancing as much as possible, avoiding crowds, and keeping windows open if weather permits.
Fauci ended the discussion by doubling down on his optimism about the availability of a vaccine.
“We’ve done this for 6 months now thinking, my God, is this is never going to end? It will end for sure, and it will end with a combination of maintaining the public health principles that the governor and I have been speaking about, together with my cautious optimism about a vaccine by the end of the year, beginning of next year,” he said. “We’ll get out of this, we’ll get out of it together. The more effort you put into keeping yourselves as green as you possibly can, the better it is.”
“We’re gonna be a year from now, probably, celebrating how we got through this together,” he said.