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Businesses, Schools Draw On CDC's Guidance To Reopen

NOEL KING, HOST:

The CDC has offered guidance to reopen schools and businesses safely. Big institutions are leading. This week, some of the biggest American car companies will bring workers back. They say they're doing everything they can to keep people safe. But what about schools and smaller businesses? Without the same resources, can they ensure people's safety? NPR's Allison Aubrey has been looking into what's realistic. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So the CDC advises - and I want to quote them here - "develop procedures to check for signs and symptoms of students and employees daily, if feasible." Daily is a lot. Is it feasible?

AUBREY: Well, I think many employers and schools are scrambling. I mean, large institutions, especially those with hospitals, have had to figure this out early. One place to look is Duke University. I spoke to Carol Epling. She's a physician and the director of Employee Occupational Health and Wellness at Duke. She described to me a daily check-in process for all employees at the Duke health system and anyone entering their hospitals, health care facilities. It includes a temperature check with an infrared thermometer.

CAROL EPLING: If someone approaches the central door, someone holds a mask towards you and you put it on. And then the individual employee walks to a station for a temperature check. And it's a very quick procedure where the screener is able to just aim the thermometer around the temple of a person's head.

AUBREY: She says this training process takes a minute or two.

KING: OK. That's a good one, but we hear so much about people who don't have symptoms carrying the virus anyway. So are temperature checks enough?

AUBREY: Well, as Epling described it, it's just one part of their process. As the screeners take a person's temperature, they also have a checklist of COVID-related symptoms that they ask about. And they ask about any potential exposure to an infected person. Now, if the screener flags any concern, the person is evaluated further, so this is a very robust system. It may be hard to detect asymptomatic cases, but it's estimated that about 75% of people with COVID will at some point develop some symptoms even if they're mild. Now, I should point out that Duke is, of course, an institution with a lot of resources, health care experts. So can all schools and businesses have this kind of system? No. I mean, probably not, not to this extent.

KING: So what are colleges, some of them with thousands or tens of thousands of students, what are they considering?

AUBREY: Well, I spoke to Bill Miller of The Ohio State University. He's part of a team or a group of experts evaluating how to move forward come fall. Ohio State has not announced any decisions yet, but he said one idea that's been floated that many schools are considering is to have students use a symptom screening app. So using their devices, they'd be required to record any COVID-related symptoms daily. And they may also be required to do a temperature check.

BILL MILLER: And then if the temperature is above a certain threshold or the symptoms meet some pre-specified criteria, the student would receive a message to basically stay away from campus or stay in their dorm room.

AUBREY: Until they get more information from student health on how to proceed. Now, if all students were required to do this, administrators could keep track of any clustering of symptoms or cases. So it really does become a way for universities to monitor and manage. I'd say other strategies colleges and universities are considering include fewer people in dorms, rooms reserved for quarantine and alternating between virtual learning, classroom learning. The California state system has already said most classes in the fall will be online, so others may follow suit.

KING: Colleges have some advantages. The students are older, so you can trust them to use the app, take their temperature every day. What about littler kids if they go back in the fall?

AUBREY: Sure. I mean, I think for, like, K-12th grade systems, many of these systems are really thinking about hybrid approaches, too. Some are considering options to spread students out so there are fewer kids in each classroom, alternating between in-class days and Zoom or distance learning days. I think the key challenge for schools is how to protect the kids and teachers, emphasizing teachers here who are at higher risk or maybe at higher risk of serious illness from COVID. I think culture change is going to be part of this, Noel. I mean, as a society, we are accustomed to powering through, right? We go to work when we're not feeling good. We send our kids to school with sniffles. But it's going to be really important for sick people to stay home. I mean, Georges Benjamin is a physician. I spoke to him. He's also the executive director of the American Public Health Association. He says one way to do this is for employers to continue to support telework as much as possible. This is one of the CDC's recommendations because staying home is the best way to protect ourselves and others.

GEORGES BENJAMIN: I was kind of a telework skeptic, and I have become a lot more accepting of what one can do. And I've learned that there are tools that my workers have to have. I've got grandkids who are doing distance learning. And we're all learning through this process. But there are opportunities for us to think differently about how we live, work, play and pray.

AUBREY: You know, not all jobs can be done from home. A recent study from researchers at the University of Chicago found about a third of jobs can be performed from home.

KING: OK. So what can be done for the other two-thirds of people who can't just stay home?

AUBREY: Well, you know, public health experts and physicians I've spoken to say the guidance from the CDC calling on employers to protect high-risk individuals, it's a good idea, but they ask where is the leadership here? Where are the resources to see this through? Where's the sick pay for essential workers or access to easy testing? Benjamin points out that minorities, often those hit hardest by COVID, hold many of the service sector jobs.

BENJAMIN: Bus drivers, security guards, grocery clerks, people who pick up our garbage - we need to prioritize that from a systematic perspective. And we really have not yet done that. And I think the guidance put out so far is too weak, too shallow. And this has been a failure of federal leadership for sure.

AUBREY: He says he would like to see a more coordinated effort to protect workers now, especially as much of the country continues to reopen.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thanks.

AUBREY: Thanks, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELIOS' "SHOULDER TO HAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.