MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project

Charleston-area school officials must resist the temptation to start school too early. They must base decisions on science, not politics or economics. Otherwise, the coronavirus pandemic is going to get away from us again, just like it did after Memorial Day.

According to the MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project, the number of new coronavirus cases is way too high to justify the disease as “manageable with regard to medical care and capacity for effective contact tracing.” Based on its data, our three-county area needs to have 78 or fewer cases per week to manage the disease safely. As of Sunday, we have more than twice that per day. In other words, infection numbers are 15 times too high for schools and businesses to get back to something closer to normal.

Therein lies the interwoven cluster of problems. First, too many children aren’t learning because they’re not in school. But students, who can’t help themselves from getting close to their friends, are sponges that attract viruses. Regardless of how cautious local schools are, kids will get COVID-19 and take it home, where it will spread like wildfire. Second, many teachers, worried about their own health and safety in reimagined schools, wonder whether they’ll actually be able to teach or whether they will have to spend too much time monitoring distancing and mask use among their pupils, who by their nature will congregate. Finally, parents and caretakers have economic realities — bills, rent or mortgages, food costs — and must normalize working conditions and need kids back in school.

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What our community needs — and so do places across America — is more time to let the virulence of coronavirus dampen. Otherwise, the collective hard work over the summer to flatten the pandemic’s curve will be for naught. Fortunately, there’s some good news locally. On eight key indicators, MUSC says we’re in the green — doing well — on three. We’ve had a sustained drop in the number of coronavirus cases for two weeks and there’s good availability for testing. But we’re still in red zones in three areas: the number of new infections, speed of getting test results and the number of “super spreader” events, such as nursing home outbreaks.

Blend all of this data together and it’s clear local school boards need to push pause for a few weeks on reopening schools — unless science dictates the number of new infections is less than 1 per 10,000 people, or 78 per week in the three-county area. It will be hard to do this, particularly with political and economic pressures from local, state and national governments and the private sector. But if we as a community want to get better more quickly and manage the disease responsibility, there is no other real choice.