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Local doctors insight on how schools handle positive COVID-19 cases

HOUSTON – With area school districts shuttering campuses for cleaning following confirmed or presumed cases of COVID19, parents have relied closely on local data collection dashboards to gauge whether schools are safe for in-person learning. 

Overall, experts say while data collection varies from district-to-district, parents rely on them as a source when determining whether schools are safe.

“We think so,” said Dr. David Callender, president and CEO at Memorial Hermann Health. "We’ve been visiting with the school leaders regularly through our affiliation with the Greater Houston Partnership and I think their protocols are good. They certainly are well thought out. They’re using them effectively,” Dr. Callender continued.

Overall, doctors stressed the importance of everyday safeguards: Mask-wearing, social distancing and cleaning in order to control the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

“What they’re telling us is they’re not seeing the transmission of the virus within schools. When children are infected they’re coming to schools. When children are infected they’re coming to school with the virus," Callender said.

Yet, doctors said contact tracing is also important when it comes to schools and controlling the spread of COVID-19.

Contact tracing hasn’t been easy in the Houston area, let alone Houston-area schools.

Dr. Jeffrey Starke, professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, said contact tracing is important when protecting schools, as children are most likely not to show any symptoms of the virus.

“Since we know that some of these infections are asymptomatic, we certainly may have transmission that’s occurring from people who don’t know they have it — especially if they’ve been recently exposed,” Starke said.

Still, Starke said overall low infection rates in schools is a good thing. Keeping them low, however, is contingent on actions outside of the classroom.

“How much transmission we’re actually seeing within the schools and how much transmission is occurring because of what’s going on in the community is really hard to tell, especially this early in the return to school,” Starke said.

Dr. Wesley Long, a clinical pathologist at Houston Methodist Hospital, added data collection varies from district to district making it hard to gauge, by a read of school district data alone.

“I think schools are trying really hard,” Long said.

But trying hard, Long continued, is equally dependent on steps being taken in the community to control spread.

“To really get that close contact that most transmission is associated with, that sort of contact is much more likely to happen in a household or someone’s daily life, then it would necessarily happen in a school environment,” Dr. Long said. "We keep stressing that COVID-19 is still out in the community. COVID-19 is still spreading,” Long added, citing a recent increase in reported cases in the Houston area.