Should Schools Stay Open? Not So Fast.
ON THANKSGIVING DAY, The COVID Monitor – our database tracking coronavirus cases in K-12 schools – showed there had been nearly 250,000 student and staff cases across the United States since Aug. 1. That's more cases than in every U.S. state combined from January to April 1 of this year. The data shows that, until community case rates fall, schools should limit in-person classes – for the benefit of everyone.
Should Schools Stay Open? Not So Fast.
Data on coronavirus cases in U.S. schools suggest in-person classes contribute to the virus’ spread
By Rebekah Jones, Scott Glasgow, and Oscar Wahltinez, U.S. News,Dec. 2, 2020, at 8:53 a.m.
ON THANKSGIVING DAY, The COVID Monitor – our database tracking coronavirus cases in K-12 schools – showed there had been nearly 250,000 student and staff cases across the United States since Aug. 1.
That's more cases than in every U.S. state combined from January to April 1 of this year.
In fact, more than 1 million children have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the United States alone.
Yet the research on cases in U.S. schools remains limited. Inaccurate, unproven claims have filled the data gap, aiming to assuage anxieties about reopening schools for in-person classes, with seemingly little regard for the potential impacts the virus may have on the students, staff, and communities affected by such choices.
With uncertainties about the long-term effects of infection on an individual's health, the evidence of children being asymptomatic spreaders, and the increase in pediatric cases recently, public pleas for closing schools have grown.
In guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, schools are called a "potential source of COVID-19 outbreaks, due to the number of individuals intermingling in close proximity for extended periods of time."
It makes sense when you think about it. Stuff a bunch of people into a confined space for eight hours a day and the likelihood of catching the virus increases.
And internationally, data indicates how quickly schools may become superspreaders.
In Israel, for example, many schools closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks only two weeks after the country fully reopened classrooms. Districts in Georgia and Mississippi experienced similar scenarios when they started school in August.
A recent study from the United Kingdom in November also showed a decline in cases in every age group except, apparently, among school-aged children and teens.
The need for good, ethical data and science on the issue of COVID-19 cases in American schools inspired our team to start The COVID Monitor – a joint effort between the finance-focused nonprofit FinMango and Florida COVID Action. We wanted to provide timely, transparent and unbiased data about the impact of K-12 education on the spread of the virus, and vice versa. Run entirely by a small army of volunteers, we've taken on a task that would be the responsibility of a federal agency under any other administration.
Today, The COVID Monitor maintains the most comprehensive national database of COVID-19 cases in schools, actively tracking information from more than 6,000 school districts in the U.S.
We pull official state data on COVID-19 cases where available, and district data where provided. We standardize, analyze and publish all of our data free to the public. Transparency and accessibility are the key tenets of the project.
We are also engaging with school officials and policymakers to give them the tools they need to make informed, data-driven decisions.
Thanks to the efforts of our team, we have an improved understanding of the effects of COVID-19 on American schools. Our data demonstrates that schools are not the safe havens or silos some believed they would be and that they in fact contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in a number of ways:
? Analysis of our data shows that the high school student case rate (13 per 1,000 students attending school in-person) is nearly three times that of elementary school students (4.4 per 1,000).
? We observed that the higher the community case rate, the higher the school district case rate, as depicted in the graphic below.
These graphics depict a) the estimated number of student and staff COVID-19 cases over a 30-day period and b) the estimated COVID-19 case rate among students and staff for a district with 25,000 students, based upon both county case rates and the percentage of students attending class in-person. Estimates are based on case and enrollment data from 4,394 school districts in Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin.
COURTESY OF THE COVID MONITOR (https://www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2020-12-02/shut-them-down-why-schools-might-not-be-safe-during-covid-19)
? We found that case rates for school districts are often much higher than case rates in the community. Meanwhile, within our data, a recent review of school district case rates based on total enrollment showed that less than 3% of all districts reporting two or more cases met a lowest-risk, case-rate threshold advised by the CDC for communities.
? We also have seen that the percentage of students attending in-person classes directly impacts the case rate in school districts. A recent study based on our data found school districts can reduce COVID-19 case rates by about 40% by reducing the in-person class size by 50%.
? Based on data from Florida, we know that school districts without mask mandates have an average case rate (12.1 per 1,000) nearly twice as high as those with mask mandates (6.9 per 1,000).
In our opinion, the data suggests schools are NOT safe and DO contribute to the spread of the virus – both within schools and within their surrounding communities. Because of this, many should be closed to in-person learning at least through January, if not longer – especially as cases continue to rise across the country.
Arguments for keeping schools open despite concerns about rising cases should center largely on the social, mental and educational well-being of children. These arguments have been made by experts in their respective fields and should be carefully considered.
However, a lack of data on cases in schools in the United States cannot be among those arguments. A lack of cases in U.S. schools cannot be, either.
Students with special needs and learning disabilities, or those economically disadvantaged and dependent upon school resources for food and shelter, should be able to attend in-person classes as needed and in reduced-enrollment spaces where possible.
Limiting the in-person attendance of students who are more capable of online learning can facilitate this, just like healthy people practicing social distancing facilitates the protection of high-risk groups.
But we are missing the opportunity to reduce the virus' spread by not implementing mitigation strategies in a consistent and timely manner. And creative solutions to the unique problems of K-12 education during COVID-19 need to be explored.
Where allowed, renting space from shuttered businesses would provide room for smaller classrooms and help pay the bills for small-business owners. Pushing high schools online would open up their facilities to those students who are more in need as well.
Other options could include having reduced-hours school days in an outside-only setting, using university spaces and recruiting new teachers from universities to help shoulder the workload.
Those recommendations could be implemented in places where community case rates fall into the CDC's "lowest-risk" category. Many places don't fall into that category at the moment, and many more won't in the next two months
The data shows that, until community case rates fall, schools should limit in-person classes – for the benefit of everyone.