School closures and remote schooling have caused “heated discussions” (to say the least) in nearly every country, school district, and school around the world. In part, these volatile discussions were driven by early pandemic data indicating little COVID-19 transmission in schools. The studies conducted between March and July of 2020 seemed to indicate, with lots of caveats, that schools were not vectors for COVID. Of course, at the time, many schools were physically closed or conducting a combination of remote and in-person education, which may have influenced the data.
Fall’s second wave through the US and Europe brought starkly different data from around the world. Suddenly, COVID was spiking in communities and in schools at VERY similar rates. These studies confirmed that children were bringing COVID back home to their families. Researchers found that teachers had even higher rates of COVID than in their communities, but were unable to determine whether this was due to spread in schools.
What changed? Many countries increased comprehensive COVID testing. Previously, most studies and data included testing of obviously sick children, which missed large swaths of contagious but asymptomatic children. Most likely COVID positive children were undercounted through Spring and Summer of 2020.
An Austrian study from September to November 2020 included comprehensive testing of students. In this study, students were as likely to get infected with COVID as their teachers, but they were often asymptomatic. Previously, these students were less likely to be tested, which means their COVID cases would be unlikely to be reported in official numbers.
From September through November, researchers found that increases in student COVID cases “paralleled” increases in COVID across the country. (Barnum, 1/12/21)
One of the study authors, microbiologist Dr. Michael Wagner from the University of Vienna, suggested that “there was an infected child sitting in about every third to fourth classroom in November…without knowing they were infected.” (Bredow, 1/15/2021). These children could transmit COVID to their families, including grandparents and extended family in multigenerational households.
Increasing evidence collected and/or published during the Second Wave of COVID shows similar findings. Two recent U.S. studies concluded that opening school buildings does not increase COVID-19 spread if cases or hospitalizations are rare, but in communities where COVID rates were higher, the risks of school opening were higher, too.
Schools across Europe began closing in mid-December, many remaining closed after the Winter Break to slow the spread of COVID. In the United Kingdom, Dr. Deepta Guarisani found children under 18 were 2-7 times as likely to bring COVID into the home. A Swiss study found closing schools was one of the top three ways to slow the spread of COVID, along with reducing gatherings to five or fewer and closing non-essential retail, restaurants, and bars. (Meredith)
Few, if any, studies suggested it was safe to return to 5-days of in-person school, thereby, recognizing the need to reduce the numbers of students in the classroom. At the same time, many studies highlighted that “concurrent” education (i.e., teachers simultaneously teach students in-person and online) was burdensome to schools and teachers and could cause learning disparities between the online and in-person students. Finally, all studies specify that schools can only open with high-levels of COVID mitigation through constant and comprehensive cleaning of buildings and classrooms, combined with adherence to rules for masks and personal protective equipment and improved ventilation. Reopening and keeping schools open is possible, but it is going to be exhausting and complicated for teachers and staff, who are typically overextended already.
What does the future hold? More studies and more data. More vaccines and possibly vaccines for children. More questions and hopefully more answers.
No matter what, school systems and decision-makers need to both balance risks while working harder than ever before in order to reopen or keep school buildings open. They will need to:
Balance the fact that in-person school offers tangible benefits to children and parents, but may spread virus to teachers and communities.
Balance risks associated with disproportionately affected communities, like teachers and Black and Hispanic populations, including the fact that some racial groups (e.g., Black and Hispanic communities) catch and die from COVID at greater rates than others in the community.
Manage inevitable inequity issues that will arise from students receiving education in different mediums (e.g., in-person, hybrid, remote).
Deal with the impact of short- and long-term staffing shortages due to illness, ADA, and early retirements.
Plan for vaccine updates including new vaccines, shortages, and whether to require vaccination for return to school or the next school year.
Update plans based on the impact of new COVID variants on the school and community.
Determine whether it is best to open/close individual schools, as needed, or have all schools in a district follow the same reopening/closure plan and evaluate the inevitable equity fallout.
Maintain high levels of cleaning staff, equipment, and products, while ensuring that COVID cleaning standards are met every day for every classroom or building.
Maintain adequate supplies of masks and PPE.
Improve ventilation, if possible.
Manage students who arrive at school sick.
And so much more…
Clearly, there are no easy answers to reopening or keeping open school buildings, particularly when, as Dr. Katharine Strunk, a study author states, “Once you get to a certain point of community infection rates, it does look like being in-person … is associated with COVID spread in the community.” (Barnum, 1/12/21) Students, teachers, education staff, decision-makers, care-givers, and families will all have some difficult decisions to make in the months ahead, particularly as more information comes to light.
Barnum, Matt. (Jan 12, 2021). COVID cases among teachers appear to be rising. What does that mean? Chalkbeat. https://www.chalkbeat.org/2021/1/12/22227990/covid-teachers-school-reopening
Barnum, Matt. (Jan 4, 2021). Do schools spread COVID? It may depend on how bad things already are around them. Chalkbeat. https://www.chalkbeat.org/2021/1/4/22214312/covid-spread-schools-research
Meredith, Sam. (Jan, 13 2021, Updated Jan 14, 2021). What we know about the spread of Covid among children — and whether shutting schools reduces the risk. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/13/coronavirus-children-and-schools-a-guide-on-what-we-know-so-far.html
Von Bredow, Rafaela. (Jan 15, 2021). New data from Austria now provides further evidence of the risk posed by children. The virus mutant B.1.1.7 could make the situation even worse. Der Spiegel. https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/new-study-explores-risk-played-by-children-in-covid-spread-a-b0a90b6f-1d21-41e8-a2d0-13751aa3ce09
Von Bredow, Rafaela. (Dec 11, 2020). Reevaluating Children’s Role in the Pandemic. Der Spiegel. https://www.spiegel.de/international/world/new-on-the-covid-19-front-lines-children-may-be-driving-the-pandemic-after-all-a-95e4c0e7-2ea0-479b-ac27-d17f07d147a5-amp?__twitter_impression=true