“Educators’ anxiety is based on reasonable concerns. Covid-19 is a serious illness. And schools are an indoor group setting with the potential to spread infection. But schools, it turns out, with a few basic safety measures, including masks and reasonable distancing, are not a high-risk venue for Covid-19 transmission. In fact, they appear to have far lower rates of the virus than their surrounding communities. Still, some education union leaders are beginning to lay the foundation for schools remaining shuttered into the 2021-22 school year.”
“One sticking point, for example, has been the union’s early and continued insistence that desks remain at least six feet apart at all times. This requirement mathematically determines whether there is enough space for learners in the building. Distancing is absolutely critical to Covid-19 mitigation, but there is no magical threshold that makes six feet the “safe” distance and five feet “dangerous.”
In settings like school, where everyone is wearing a face covering, there really is no measurable difference in risk between being three feet and six feet apart. That is why there is no official guidance from any relevant public health body that mandates six-foot distancing at all times.”
“The union also named a lack of asymptomatic testing for teachers as a major barrier to return to in-person learning. To get kids back to school, we implemented such a routine testing plan, at great cost and logistical effort. We discovered that since testing began in January 2021, the positivity rate among teachers and staff has been approximately 0.15 percent — while cases were surging in the Boston metro area — and our contact tracing efforts have not identified any cases of in-building transmission.
Even so, the union continues to resist a return to full in-person learning. What’s more, the goalpost seems to have shifted again, now to universal vaccination of teachers.”
In the US, epidemiologists compared the timing of school closures to changes in Covid incidence. Some studies found that school closures might have reduced the spread of illness, but the findings are complicated because we were also making other major public health changes at the same time. And overall they failed to find a strong link.
Data and patterns also began to emerge about children’s Covid-19 test results and their exposures. Playdates with friends emerged as the common exposure among the infected; time in school did not.
Still, as reassuring as the data were, they were all indirect. The gold standard to learn if schools can open safely is fairly simple: Open schools, measure Covid incidence, and see what happens. Many US school districts have now done this, and we have the data.
First, researchers in North Carolina published results from 11 school districts and over 100,000 students and staff. Schools in those districts employed mandatory masking and six-foot distancing where feasible, but no major capital improvement to HVAC systems or buildings. In the first quarter of this school year, they found the rate of transmission of Covid in schools was dramatically lower (roughly 1/25) than the level of transmission in the community. Among all of the Covid-19 infections observed in school, the state health department’s tracers found 96 percent were acquired in the community, and there were no documented cases of the virus passing from child to adult in schools — zero.
Second, a similar study followed 17 schools in Wisconsin. Like North Carolina, those schools required masks indoors, three-foot distancing with effort to distance farther whenever feasible, and no major capital improvements. Between August 31 and November 29, with over 4,500 students and 650 staff, they found seven cases of Covid transmission to children and also found no cases of Covid transmission to educators in the buildings. Further, these schools eliminated Covid transmission at the same time that the surrounding community saw a rapid rise in Covid-19 cases.
A third important preprint study analyzes data from two schools in Atlanta. This study is small, but it is important because the schools were conducting routine asymptomatic screening of students, teachers, and staff. In Atlanta, 72 percent of the limited number of transmission events in one school were known to be the result of non-compliance with masking. And again here, there were no cases transmitted from students to teachers.
Sadly, at the same time that we are learning definitively that we can open schools safely and essentially prevent Covid transmission, data are emerging about the real damage being done to children by prolonged remote learning”