Are schools safe from COVID? The CDC has officially weighed in

Employees cleaning a school - safe from covid
Photo via Phil Roeder/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Since schools across the country first closed their doors due to the coronavirus pandemic, resuming in-person learning has been the subject of continual debate. New findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may provide welcome insight for stressed parents and teachers who are reaching their breaking point with virtual classes. The question of whether schools are safe from COVID-19 has finally been answered.

A paper, published by Journal of the American Medical Association on Jan. 26, found that in-school transmissions were generally rare when adhering to basic health and safety measures. In coming to these conclusions, the review cited studies from North Carolina, Mississippi, and rural Wisconsin, along with two studies abroad.

The three domestic studies, which examined data from schools that had reopened since the fall, found little evidence that in-person classes had meaningfully contributed to increased community transmission. The leading causes for outbreaks and increased risk of infection in these communities were not from schools reopening, but rather through gatherings outside the home and inviting outside visitors into the home. With proper measures, schools can be far safer from COVID-19 than initially thought.

The North Carolina study, which involved 11 school districts with 90,000 students and staff, found that in-school transmissions were “very rare.” Just 32 infections stemmed from classrooms, compared to 773 community transmissions. The researchers also found zero cases of student-to-staff transmission.

The Wisconsin study, which took place over 13 weeks in the fall, had similar findings. In a rural community with 4,876 students and 654 staff members across 17 schools, just seven out of 191 staff and student cases were determined to have been a result of in-school transmission. These schools all reported high instances of mask-wearing.

“The preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring insofar as the type of rapid spread that was frequently observed in congregate living facilities or high-density worksites has not been reported in education settings in schools,” wrote three CDC researchers who co-authored the study. “Preventing transmission in school settings will require addressing and reducing levels of transmission in the surrounding communities through policies to interrupt transmission.”

In other words, the researchers are placing the burden on communities to keep cases down by limiting or avoiding high-risk behavior like indoor dining.

The importance of continued in-school mitigation measures was also stressed in the study. Universal face mask use, increasing air ventilation, physical distancing in classrooms and common areas, and expanded COVID-19 screenings will be essential in resuming in-person learning.

School districts should continue using hybrid models when needed, according to researchers. This should help prevent overcrowding and accommodate staff and students at high risk of severe illness or death if infected with the virus.

“With good prevention, we can safely reopen and keep open more schools,” Dr. Margaret A. Honein, CDC epidemiologist and lead author of the report, said in an interview with the Washington Post. “The bottom line for me is really prioritizing the in-person educational setting and making the hard choices both in communities and in schools about other activities that we value but might have to be postponed to not jeopardize our children’s education.”

Honein says that transmission of COVID in schools and educational settings can be kept quite low with proper prevention efforts to keep them safe. “We didn’t know that at the beginning of the year, but the data has really accumulated,” she added.

One exception is extracurricular activities and sports, which make physical distancing difficult or impossible. A separate CDC study published on Jan. 26 cited two Florida high school wrestling matches that became superspreader events last December. Of 130 attendees, including wrestlers, coaches, and referees, 38 out of 54 that were tested were positive for the virus.

Later, 43% of 91 close contacts of the infected also tested positive for the virus, including one adult over 50 who eventually died.

“High-contact school athletic activities for which mask-wearing and physical distancing are not possible should be postponed during periods with substantial or high levels of community transmission,” the study says. “Outbreaks among athletes participating in high contact sports can impact in-person learning for all students and increase risk for secondary in-school and community transmission with potentially severe outcomes including death.”

Sources: Washington Post, JAMA, CDC

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