Is in-person learning creating more coronavirus cases?

in-person learning coronavirus
Photo via Marco Verch Professional Photographer/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

As more schools reopen around the world, growing evidence suggests little correlation between in-person learning and the spread of the coronavirus. 

In the U.S., 24 of the 50 largest school districts in the states have resumed in-person schooling, and 11 more plan to do the same in the coming weeks. Although school teachers have died and there were outbreaks early in the school year, new international research corroborates the move back to in-person learning. 

A recent study from Spain by Enric Álvarez at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya found that 87% of those who tested positive in the study did not infect anyone else at their school. Spain’s second wave began before the country reopened schools earlier in the fall, yet in some regions, cases dropped or remained the same in the weeks after in-person schooling resumed. 

“What we found is that the school [being opened] makes absolutely no difference,” Álvarez told NPR.

Elsewhere, Insights for Education, an international education advising service, recently published a report that found no clear relationship between schools closing and COVID-19 cases falling. 

The study surveyed schools across 191 countries from February through the end of September. Countries such as Thailand and South Africa saw no correlation between schools opening and transmission rates, while Vietnam and Gambia saw cases fall after schools reopened. 

“We’re not saying at all that schools have nothing to do with cases,” said Dr. Randa Grob-Zakhary, who leads Insights for Education. “There is no consistent pattern. It’s not that closing schools leads to a decrease in cases, or that opening schools leads to a surge in cases.”

Recent studies from the U.S. led to similar results. After Texas ordered schools to reopen in September, 2,000 students reported new cases in the week ending on Oct. 11, just 1% of the 2.1 million students attending school in person. 

In New York City, studies from the school system found just 0.17% positive from 16,000 tests among students and teachers. 

Other studies are quelling worries about the risks childcare workers face from entering schools. Yale University tracked 57,000 workers across the states and Puerto Rico. Half of those monitored continued caring for young children while another half stayed home. The study found no difference in the rate of coronavirus infection between the two groups.

The findings are leading health experts to believe school transmissions have more to do with coronavirus rates within a school’s community than anything happening on campuses. 

“Schools exist as a microcosm of their communities,” said Wendy Armstrong, professor of medicine at Emory University. “Areas with high community spread, certainly with rates greater than 10 per 100,000, probably should think carefully about reopening schools.”  

With this the case, some wonder if virtual learning’s disadvantages outweigh its benefits. 

“I think everybody’s quite worried about what the price is that we’ve paid for having the buildings closed,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. 

The price of missing out on in person learning is disproportionately higher for those within Black, Latinx, and Native American communities. 

“Children that are at the severest risk of disease, are also at the severest risk of not having a school open, whether it be for food security, adult time, security, losing the time to learn or losing the skills that they have acquired over the last year or so,” said Dr. Rainu Kaushal of Weill Cornell Medicine.

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Sources: NPR, Washington Post, Poynter 

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