Fauci cautious about schools, colleges reopening in fall: ‘We better be careful”

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
(Alex Quesada / Los Angeles Times)

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, urged caution about reopening schools this fall.

Speaking at a U.S. Senate hearing on Tuesday, Fauci was asked by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) whether colleges and schools could feel safe welcoming students back in the fall. Fauci said that would largely depend on the ability to do widespread testing and other factors.

“The idea of having treatments available or a vaccine to facilitate reentry of students into the fall term would be something that would be a bit of a bridge too far,” Fauci said. “The drug that has shown some degree of efficacy was modest and was in hospitalized patients.”


He sharply rebuffed Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who suggested that schools should be reopened because evidence suggests the virus does not seriously affect children.

“I think we better be careful if we are not cavalier in thinking that children are completely immune to the deleterious effects” of the illness, Fauci said, noting that there is a lot unknown about the virus and its effects.

When and how to reopen schools has been a major issue in California. Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would like some campuses to reopen by late summer.

Although the school year in Los Angeles is set to begin on Aug. 18, the prospect of opening 900 campuses will rely on solutions for daunting and costly problems — including whether half a million students and their families would be tested for COVID-19, Supt. Austin Beutner said.

“There has been discussion about the need to have students with families tested, but no clear picture yet drawn as to where the tests would be provided and who will pay for them,” Beutner said in an interview. His staff is working with state and local authorities and a team of UCLA experts on reopening protocols.

Two other major concerns include coming up with a plan — and funding — for supplying masks for students and staff, perhaps multiple masks a day for children, and sanitizing schools, he said.

“The top-to-bottom cleaning that will be necessary and appropriate is different than it might have been just a few months ago,” Beutner said. “Schools were cleaned every day, but not necessarily sanitized. It’s two different things. Sanitizing is more intensive, costs more.”

Beutner also spoke of the difficulty of managing students’ safely once they return to campus. He referenced research suggesting that a school environment ranks among the settings where infections would be more likely to spread, on par with college dorms and nightclubs.

As for masks: “Where will those come from? Are we buying them?” asked Beutner, who foresees difficult economic times.

The concern over finances is timely. Gov. Gavin Newsom this week is expected to release his revised budget proposal for next year — as measures to combat COVID-19 have decimated the state budget with a projected $54.3-billion deficit through the summer, the largest in state history. In a worst-case scenario, analysts forecast a 20% cut to education funding.