(Pexels)

Schools should delay starting or offer virtual-only instruction until Sept. 8, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Tuesday, to avoid loss of life due to the coronavirus.


Sept. 8 is three weeks later than the currently planned start date for Austin ISD.

The recommendation comes as Austin has seen soaring numbers of positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks.

"The schools need time, they need time to plan, they need time to orient their faculty and staff to the new realities," Escott said at a Travis County commissioners meeting.

Travis County had about 192,000 school-age children and thousands of teachers and administrative and support staff in 2019, according to Census data. Of those students, 80,000 are in Austin ISD.

"The risk of students having severe illness or death is relatively small compared to others," Escott said, adding that the risk of death is 0.18%, with Travis County's numbers looking closer to 0.3%-1.02%. "This is a little bit of a challenge of the numbers because you hear 0.18% and the translation is well, my child has a 99.8% chance of not dying from COVID-19."

However, Escott said the issue is that when those small numbers are taken and multiplied by the current student population, with an expectation that up to 70% of students could be infected, those small percentages turn into anywhere from 40-1,370 deaths.

"These are sobering numbers, and we have to be very, very careful when we hear people talking about the percentage of people," he said.

But with faculty and staff, the potential number of deaths is somewhere between two and 10 times higher, Escott said.

Looking beyond the potential loss of life, though, Escott said the spread of the disease will endanger continuity of education if a school has to shut down because too many students or staff members get sick.

"The practicality of social distancing in almost all of our schools is a challenge," Escott said, citing information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Texas Education Agency as well as anecdotally, his own wife who is a schoolteacher. "Our schools are not designed to have desks six feet apart, most of our districts would have to triple the size of schools, triple the size of spaces in order to achieve that."

Right now, Escott said schools are simply not ready to handle the return of students and protect the safety of them and their staff.

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