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October 21, 2020

Are school reopenings driving coronavirus outbreaks? Here's what the research says.

Daily Briefing

    During the summer, many parents, students, and public health experts worried that resuming in-person classes in the fall would "trigge[r] new waves" of novel coronavirus infections—but a few months into the school year, new research suggests that K-12 "[s]chools do not, in fact, appear to be major spreaders of Covid-19," Emily Oster writes for The Atlantic.

    Weekly line: The 3 biggest obstacles to reopening schools

    The effect of school reopenings on coronavirus spread

    Oster, an economist at Brown University, has been working with data scientists at Qualtrics, as well as various K-12 school stakeholder associations, to identify and monitor Covid-19 data in schools. For their research, they looked at nearly 200,000 children in 47 states from the last two weeks of September and found that students had an infection rate of 0.13%, while staff showed a 0.24% infection rate

    According to Oster, those totals amount to "about 1.3 infections over two weeks in a school of 1,000 kids, or 2.2 infections over two weeks in a group of 1,000 staff"—and even in high-risk areas of the country, the infection rates among students "were well under half a percent."

    Oster cites other school-based data that show low overall infection rates for those in K-12 schools. Texas, for instance, has reported 1,490 cases out of an estimated 1,080,317 students attending in-person classes for the week ending on September 27, which translates to a 0.14% infection rate. Among staff, the infection rate in Texas during that same week was 0.10%. Similarly, New York has reported  just 18 positive coronavirus cases out of 10,600 tests after almost three weeks of in-person instruction, according to Axios' "Vitals."

    Meanwhile, a separate study of over 57,000 day care providers found that reopening day care was safe provided certain basic safety measures, including mask-wearing and keeping groups small, were implemented, "Vitals" reports.

    Moreover, according to Oster, "[p]redictions about school openings hurting the broader community seem to have been overblown as well." Preliminary data from Florida indicate that there haven't been any "big community spikes as a result of school openings," while data from Georgia indicates that overall infection rates have continued to decline over the past month, Oster writes.


    While the data is encouraging and suggests schools may be able to reopen safely, the data so far is limited to small school districts, as the majority of larger school districts in the United States are operating remotely, "Vitals" reports.

    However, while Oster acknowledges that for some, "any risk is too great," she writes that planning to reopen schools only when it is "completely safe … ignores the enormous costs to children from closed schools." She explains that not only did the interruption of school in the spring, when the pandemic first hit, result in "learning losses," but the situation has also burdened parents who aren't able to find childcare.

    In addition, school closures disproportionately affect low-income children of color, Oster writes. And while remote learning is available, Oster adds, attendance levels are poor and such schooling has been linked by pediatricians to toxic stress.

    "I hope that more schools and districts will see [this] data, and others, and perhaps start to think about how reopening might work," Oster said. "We do not want to be cavalier or put people at risk. But by not opening, we are putting people at risk, too" (Owens, "Vitals," Axios, 10/20; Oster, The Atlantic, 10/9).

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