The Highland County Health Department released its guidelines for local school districts last week, and each public school district has released its reopening plan for the 2020-21 school year. As the countdown to the first day of school continues, Highland County Health Commissioner Jared Warner spoke with The Times-Gazette about his and other officials’ concerns for this school year and some of the processes that led to the health department’s school guidelines.
“We started working with our local public and private schools’ superintendents well before the governor released his guidelines,” Warner said. “We were looking to find some common ground with larger concepts — a common framework that all of us to agree to — even if the finer details are a little different for each organization. That was the idea we started with: what are the bigger areas we agree on, and then later we can all work individually. Each superintendent has to go back to their school board and take into account the different challenges that they face. Our more rural districts, especially down in the southern part of the county, really struggle with internet and technology access and that makes it so difficult for them to do any sort of remote learning. We knew from the beginning that we had to develop guidelines come from the perspective that some of us have no choice but to go five days a week. We have to really balance the educational needs of the students and the safety needs of the community.”
School guidelines go beyond students’ and staff members’ health, Warner said.
“We’re trying to avoid having schools become that vector for a larger amount of community spread,” Warner said. “We’ve already seen that happening on a smaller scale with sports teams and church camps in Ohio — kids have come together, the disease has spread, and when they go home, they take it with them. We’re trying to keep that from happening when we reopen schools.”
When developing the guidelines, the health department and superintendents focused on issues schools struggle with even during more normal school years.
“One of the really seemingly basic guidelines is ‘don’t send your kids to school if they’re sick.’ I know that’s a struggle for our schools on a regular year,” Warner said. “Some of the local disease clusters that we’ve been dealing with in Highland County are directly connected to people who knew they were sick but went to an event anyway. We have to stop that kind of stuff, both with our adults and our kids. We’ve encouraged the schools to do temperature screenings before the kids even come in the building. Different schools will have different approaches, but we have to watch for symptoms.”
As a result, the health department has recommended that schools not offer awards for students’ perfect attendance this school year.
Before any of the local schools have their first days back, Warner said the health department and school administrations will have in-depth procedures and policies in place to provide guidance when cases do appear in schools.
“We’re going to have a case in a school eventually, so we’re developing a plan for how we respond, how we communicate with families, and how we keep this from growing exponentially in the schools themselves,” Warner said. “Let’s say we have a first-grader who tests positive — we’ll have specific steps for the health department and the school systems to respond to that. Our parents need to know what kind of communication to expect. We’re talking through some of these finer details with the state right now, so we can have consistency.”
Warner stressed that these guidelines will shift as the health department and schools discover what works best — but the situation needs to be taken seriously.
“Everyone wants to focus on the fatality rate — that’s where they want to end the conversation. People keep forgetting the hospitalization rates that tend to be associated with this. When we look at a population like Highland County that, as far as we can tell, is pretty sheltered from feeling the effects of this virus, there are a lot of people who could potentially get sick.”
According to Warner, about 12 to 14 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases result in hospitalization, which can overwhelm health care systems as providers continue to receive patients with non-COVID-related health issues as well.
“I’ve seen graphs all over Facebook too that say, ‘This is how many people live in Ohio, and this is the number of people who have been impacted — why are they making such a big deal about it?’ Part of the reason we’re making a big deal is that most of the people who have not been impacted have also not been exposed,” Warner said. “They have no immunity, and we have very little treatment available to us. There’s really no prevention — no vaccine or anything like that. We have to take it seriously because we know it has a higher hospitalization rate. It’s also nine to 10 times more deadly than the flu. It’s not something to panic about, but it does require a little bit of a different approach from a public health perspective.”
In a post to the health department’s website, Warner wrote, “Our health department staff have been working with our community’s public and private school district leaders for the last few weeks to discuss and plan for how school is going to look in the fall. Your local schools have spent an incredible amount of time and effort taking these core planning concepts and figuring out the best way to implement them in their schools.
“As we all discuss back to school plans, I would ask that you be kind to our school leadership and staff. They have risen to every challenge thrown at them by COVID-19, and they are faced with some pretty tough choices for the fall. There is no way to make every parent happy, and there is no perfect solution. Let’s all remember that this is their first time trying to plan school during a global pandemic, and they are all trying to find the right balance between education and safety. Be patient, be supportive, and be kind.”
Reach McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.