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Schools struggle to reopen as COVID-19 cases rise

Yahoo Finance’s Alexis Christoforous and Brian Sozzi speak with Dr. Howard Koh, a professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and former HHS official.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: It's been another difficult week in the efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The death toll here in the US now tops 167,000 with thousands more deaths this week alone. And it comes as local leaders struggle with how to reopen our schools or keep them open in areas where fall classes have already begun.

Let's talk about this further now with Dr. Howard Koh. He is a professor at Harvard's TH Chan School of Public Health and a former assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. Koh, good to see you this morning. You know, this reopening of schools across the country seems a bit chaotic. Is this just another sign that our response to COVID-19 in this country is fundamentally broken?

DR. HOWARD KOH: Well, unfortunately, Alexis, that's a good summary. You know, we've had a patchwork response since the first case of coronavirus in January. And here we are into month seven-- seven and counting. We still don't really have a unified or national plan from going forward.

So with respect to schools, the overwhelming issue is the level of community transmission in the state or city. So if there are places around the country where transmission's high, cases are rising, deaths are rising, and test positivity is still high, it's gonna be very, very difficult to come to a consensus about how to open. Having said that, there are other places in the country like New York where the cases and deaths have dropped for quite a while.

Test positivity is now 1%. So there is ongoing very important discussions about how to reopen in places like New York. But these are really difficult decisions that all require the input of students, families, parents, teachers, staff, and local health officials.

BRIAN SOZZI: Doctor, what would you advise local school board-- school boards to do for-- you know, there's-- there's school certainly that have access to high-speed internet and the resources to make remote learning work well for them. But as you know, there are just countless schools that don't have access to either.

DR. HOWARD KOH: That's a very important question, Brian. And, you know, one very disturbing dimension of this pandemic has been the inequities that it has exposed. We're seeing, particularly communities of color, that are under tremendous pressure right now because there are high rates of cases, and deaths, and transmission. And then schools there are gonna have even harder challenges to reopen.

So this is where we need federal, state, and local coordination as much as possible. There is funding that has come down from Congress. There should be more. And we're waiting to see after the break when more stimulus money is coming.

Schools need support right now, because if they reopen, they're gonna need more funding for IT capacity, for partitions in schools, for more equipment and ventilation resources. There are so many dimensions here that have coordinated to get schools back on track.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Doctor, what is the role of testing and rapid testing when it comes to reopening schools? Should that be part of the protocol? I mean, I have children myself. All of their schools are saying, we have to take their temperature before they go in. Their temperature will most likely be taken when they get to school.

That's sort of it. What about testing? And how important is that to keeping schools open?

DR. HOWARD KOH: Well, Alexis, that's a really important question. So just yesterday, the White House put out eight criteria by which schools should reopen, re-emphasize some very important public health guidelines the CDC put out a couple months ago. And they were important as far as they went, talking about social distancing, and hand hygiene, and those sorts of things, but they did not mention testing at all. And in fact, there's been very little research, and guidelines, and discussion about testing protocols in schools and colleges.

So just last week in the college area, a very important study came out in JAMA recommending that college students be tested perhaps as frequently as every other day. So we need more data. We need more science. We need more national leadership to resolve that very important question you just raised, Alexis.

BRIAN SOZZI: Doctor, you teach at-- you teach at Harvard, which is all-remote learning now. How has that situation changed how you teach students?

DR. HOWARD KOH: Well, we've all had to adjust. We've been teaching online since mid-March, actually. And we have a global student body. So coordinating students across time zones and people from around the world is-- is not easy.

But there is a commitment to go forward. And everyone's trying to be as flexible as possible. What I'm pleased about is we've had these decisions made after very inclusive conversations from all parts of our academic community. And I'm sure that that's the only way that we can do this for schools and colleges anywhere going forward.

And this is critically important, Brian, as the fall is coming and seasonal flu is on the horizon. Vaccination campaigns will start there. And so, again, the communication and coordination while tracking the data and trends in the surrounding community is critically important.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Dr. Howard Koh of Harvard's TH Chan School of Public Health, thanks for being with us, and good luck with the start of the new school season, Doctor.

DR. HOWARD KOH: Thank you, Alexis. Thank you.