‘We’re all holding our breath’: Health experts on school reopenings in Texas

Desks are zip-tied and a green "Use" sticker is placed on available desks to practice social distancing in an academic hall at the University of Texas at Austin on Aug. 24, 2020.                    Credit: Allie Goulding for The Texas Tribune
Desks are zip-tied and a green "Use" sticker is placed on available desks to practice social distancing in an academic hall at the University of Texas at Austin on Aug. 24, 2020. Credit: Allie Goulding for The Texas Tribune

As schools and universities across Texas begin reopening, families, students and educators are adjusting to remote instruction, schools are preparing to file weekly reports on COVID-19 cases and universities are providing free on-campus coronavirus testing.

The Texas Tribune spoke to epidemiologists and health experts about what the state can expect with schools and universities resuming online or in-person instruction. The Tribune also talked to the same experts about the state's coronavirus data backlog.

Question: As hospitalizations decline, schools and universities are reopening — and already seeing outbreaks — and Labor Day is coming up. What do you think the state can expect in the weeks ahead?

Dr. Ron Cook, professor at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and the city of Lubbock’s public health authority: I think we’re all holding our breath on … what opening schools and opening colleges and universities is going to do. ... So I think we're going to see a surge, I think we'll see a surge of positive cases in the next 10 days to two weeks. That [student] population more than likely will do pretty well. But another 10 days after that we may see those that they come in contact with ... may not do so well.

Catherine Troisi, infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston: It is great news of course the hospitalizations have been declining, probably due to better treatment … we've learned a lot about the infection, and the fact that it's younger people being infected and they are less likely to have more severe outcomes and need to be hospitalized. It may also be that people are getting tested earlier so the disease is caught earlier and supportive measures can be given.

However, there is concern that the fact that hospitalizations are going down will be taken as a sign that, ‘Oh we can go back to normal,’ because we're all tired of this. We were tired of it four months ago and now we're really tired of it ...

We've got a holiday weekend coming up [Labor Day weekend], and we saw what happened Fourth of July and Memorial Day. The fact that schools are opening is a big experiment, particularly the elementary schools and the role of children in the spread of this virus, and there's a lot we don't know. … Colleges — it’s less of an experiment because I think we know what's going to happen. Eighteen-year-olds, first of all, think they're invincible. They're not going to die of anything. They're social animals. They haven't seen their friends since March. It is understandable that they are not going to keep up masking and, particularly, physical distancing. And anytime you get a lot of people together, especially when 40 to 50% of them are infected and don't know that they are, there's a possibility of spread.

The short answer to your question is, yes, we are concerned. … We've got these three things happening and I would predict that we're going to see an increase in cases.