What We Know About Opening Schools

Overviews of the current state of research on COVID and K-12 schools.

This is how you come back to school safely.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.
Schools can be open safely – even with Delta – as long as we put what we learned last year into practice. (The Atlantic, 08.23.2021)

Seriously, folks, we KNOW how to do this.

What Parents Want Schools to Do in Fall 2021
(RAND, July 2021)

The results of a nationwide survey show that parents want:

  • Ventilation in classrooms
  • Vaccinated teachers
  • Social distancing
  • Mandatory masking
  • Regular COVID-19 testing.

#1 concern about testing? That it’ll be physically uncomfortable.

CDC logo.
Transmission of SARS-CoV-2
In K-12 schools
(CDC Science Briefs, 02.12.21)
  • Yes, it can happen.
  • If mitigation protocols are in place, it happens rarely.
  • The higher the COVID prevalence in the community, the more likely it is to happen.
  • It’s more likely to happen between staff members than it is from students to staff, staff to student, or student to student.
  • It might be more likely to happen in high schools than in elementary schools.
  • Wearing masks and physical distancing are REALLY IMPORTANT parts of making sure it doesn’t happen.
  • If schools use multiple mitigation strategies, it’s MUCH LESS LIKELY to happen.
  • It’s much more likely to happen during sports – especially close contact sports – than it is to happen in school itself.
Yardsticks. Image by Eva the Weaver from Flickr.
If mitigation measures in place, risk difference between 6 feet and 3 feet of distance is negligible (Clinical Infectious Diseases, 03.10.21)

This study looked at data from 251 Massachusetts school districts, comprising over half a million students and nearly 100,000 teachers and staff members. All the schools required masking; more than 90% had improved their ventilation in some way. There was no significant difference in the COVID case rates of schools at three vs. six feet of distance. And every single school district’s COVID incidence rates were lower than the incidence rates of their surrounding communities.

The tools of school. Image by AzamKamolov from Pixabay.
The Truth About Kids, School, and COVID-19
(The Atlantic, 01.28.21)

“The choice before us is not between ‘Keep the schools closed until COVID-19 is eliminated, smallpox-style, from the face of the Earth’ and ‘Open every school immediately.'”

“Instead, the United States needs a focused framework, guided by science and common sense, for how to open schools as safely and as soon as possible, considering the risk to students and parents from closed classrooms, while keeping teacher fears front of mind.”

Latex gloves, hand sanitizer, and surgical mask.
Image by Dr StClaire from Pixabay.
Data and Policy to Guide Opening Schools Safely
(JAMA, 01.26.21)

This viewpoint by three CDC docs provides evidence that schools can open safely, as long as COVID mitigation measures are in place. However, “Numerous media reports of COVID-19 outbreaks among US high school athletic teams suggest that contact during both practices and competition, and at social gatherings associated with team sports, increase risk. “

Coronavirus on a chalkboard. Image by chiplanay from Pixabay.
Everything We Know Now About Schools, Kids, and COVID-19
(WIRED magazine, 01.15.21)
  • Young kids are less likely to show COVID symptoms or to get seriously ill.
  • If kids don’t have symptoms, they’re less likely to spread the virus.
  • “Kids under 10 are about half as likely to transmit the virus as adults.”
  • “SARS-CoV-2 can and will spread through schools, but they seem to only become super-spreading hot spots when precautions like masks, distancing, and ventilation are ignored.”
  • “Schools are always going to be a risk, but one that can be managed—and not being in school is also really bad for kids, for their parents, and for society as a whole.”
School bus with stop sign. Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay.
Does reopening schools cause COVID-19 to spread? It’s complicated
(The Conversation, 01.14.21)

Data from Michigan and Washington state showed that “schools can reopen for in-person instruction without further spreading COVID-19 in nearby communities if the number of people with the disease is relatively low. But if there are more than 21 cases per 100,000 people, COVID-19 spread may increase.”

“It might appear that going to school in person makes COVID-19 spread, but really it is due to safety habits – or the lack thereof – especially if those same communities are more likely to send students back to school in person.”

COVID-19 weekly incidence,*,† by age group —
United States, March 1–December 12, 2020. CDC MMWR.
COVID-19 Trends Among Persons Aged 0–24 Years — United States, March 1–December 12, 2020 (CDC MMWR, 01.13.21)

Where anti-COVID measures like masking and distancing have been in place, opening PK – 12 schools in person has not caused increased incidence of COVID in the greater community or within the schools. By contrast, opening higher-education institutions *has* increased community incidence of coronavirus.

That being said, the incidence of COVID in children is probably still underestimated, since there’s less testing of kids overall.

Ambulance. Image by Memed_Nurrohmad from Pixabay.
Will opening schools in your area make more people sick? If hospitalization rates are low enough, probably not. 
(WBUR, 01.07.21)

nationwide study “looked to see if more people ended up in the hospital after nearby schools reopened.” In places that had fewer than 36 to 44 hospitalizations per 100,000 people, opening schools didn’t make the situation any worse – in many cases, hospitalizations actually decreased. If the area hospitalization rate was higher than that, results were inconclusive.


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