On Thursday, the State released long-awaited guidelines that tell school leaders when they should be providing in-person instruction, and when they can shift to online-only classes or a hybrid of the two. But the data that state officials say should be used to make that determination is not currently available to local public health agencies or the public, and the benchmarks announced by the state don’t align with national health officials’ recommendations.
The state will use a county’s 14-day average positivity rate to determine whether school buildings should be open, or whether students should be educated remotely. The positivity rate is the percentage of a county’s residents who test positive for COVID-19 of the overall number who have been tested in a two-week span.
While the state publishes each county’s overall positivity rate (since testing began in March) and it posts the previous day’s positivity rate on the Iowa coronavirus website, the counties’ 14-day positivity rates are not available.
Rocky Reents, the public health coordinator for Greenbelt Home Care/Hardin County Public Health said she also does not have access to the 14-day average positivity rate for the county. Reents said the state has promised a new website that will provide more information to local public health agencies – including COVID-19 cases by zip code – but its launch is still two to four weeks away. School in Hardin County is scheduled to resume the week of Aug. 24.
Reynolds, in announcing the guidelines and benchmarks on Thursday, cited an interview of U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams on "Face the Nation" on July 12. He said schools in areas with positivity rates of less than 10 percent should open for in-person education. But the guidelines released by the state on Thursday set a higher benchmark.
According to the Iowa guidelines, a school district can only shift to online classes if its county’s positivity rate is 15 percent or higher and at least 10 percent of the students who are expected to be there for in-person learning are absent. Parents can still choose to keep their children home for remote learning, but the school should be offering in-person education, the state says.
At the Thursday press conference, Reynolds said 93 of Iowa’s 99 counties currently had 14-day average positivity rates of less than 10 percent, but she did not list the six counties that have higher rates. Hardin County has recorded 57 new COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks for a total cumulative case count of 155, but its 14-day positivity rate has not been published by the state.
According to the New York Times’ coronavirus tracker, Hardin County ranks fifth among Iowa’s 99 counties for most new cases per 100,000 residents in the last seven days. And a federal report dated July 26 lists Hardin County as one of eight counties in Iowa that are classified as being in the “red zone,” meaning it has seen more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents in the last seven days. The state as a whole is also in the red zone. The report includes the following policy recommendations for people who live in red zones:
- Wear a mask at all times outside the home and maintain physical distance
- Limit social gatherings to 10 people or fewer
- Do not go to bars, nightclubs or gyms
- Reduce public interactions and activities to 25 percent of your normal activity
A portion of Hardin County’s new cases over the last week can be attributed to an outbreak at the Boys State Training School in Eldora. According to an Iowa Department of Human Services update, as of Thursday afternoon 11 staff and 17 students at the school had tested positive for COVID-19.
On Thursday, Hardin County ranked first among Iowa’s 99 counties for the percent of total cumulative cases that have been in children age 0-17, in large part because of the State Training School outbreak. As of Thursday afternoon, 21 percent of Hardin County’s 150 cases were in people age 0-17. Boone County ranked second with 18 percent of its cases age 0-17.
Reents said diagnosing young people with COVID-19 can be difficult. They're often asymptomatic, and testing usually only occurs if they've been in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient.
"We’ve discussed that the illness is not near as intense in kids, and multiple kids you won't even know have it," Reents said. "But that could also be a bad thing because you’re sending them to school and day care and they could still be transmitting it to each other and bring it home to elderly family member and that’s what we’re concerned about."
The state also released guidelines that instruct school districts how to proceed when a student or a member of a school's staff is feeling ill. The flow chart provides information about when a student or employee can return to the building, which duties are the school's responsibility and which should be left to public health officials.
Local school districts have been working for months to develop Return to Learn plans and purchase protective masks, face shields and plastic partitions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when students and staff return to school. District leaders said this month that they expect to release their plans to the public as soon as next week.