“Everyone was afraid that there would be explosive bursts of transmission in schools. In colleges there have been. We have to say that, to date, we haven’t seen those in younger children, and that’s a really important observation, “said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
This does not mean that the risk of contracting the coronavirus is zero. Poor and inconsistent reports in many parts of the country mean that experts still don̵
Most of the nation’s larger districts have opened with completely distance learning, so the data largely comes from smaller communities. And the pandemic could get worse as flu season and winter approaches.
But the fact that large swaths of the country have been opened for in-person school while others haven’t gives more cautious districts a chance to observe how things have gone elsewhere as they chart their next steps.
On Wednesday, Brown University researchers, in collaboration with school administrators, released their first dataset from a new national COVID-19 School Response Data dashboard, created to monitor coronavirus cases. He found low levels of infection among students and teachers.
By monitoring infections over a two-week period starting August 31, it was found that 0.23% of the students had a confirmed or suspected case of the coronavirus. Among teachers, it was 0.49%. Looking only at confirmed cases, the rates were even lower: 0.078% for students and 0.15% for teachers.
“These numbers will be reassuring to some people and suggest that school openings may be less risky than they expected,” said Emily Oster, an economics professor at Brown University who helped create the tracker. He noted that coronavirus rates in schools are “much lower” than in the surrounding community.
However, he said: “I don’t think these numbers say that all places should open schools without restrictions or anything that comes close to that. Ultimately, school districts will have different attitudes towards risk.”
The information for its dashboard is voluntarily reported by schools and school districts, both public and private, including schools that offer in-person and completely remote classes. As of Wednesday morning, the project had data from more than 550 schools, including more than 300 that have some in-person classes. Organizers are working to add more schools as they go.
Separately, early Texas data also show low levels of infection. In Texas, about 2,350 students reported positive tests – or about 0.21 percent of the 1.1 million students who attend school in person, according to data released last week. Another 2,175 school employees tested positive, although a rate could not be calculated because it was unclear how many of the more than 800,000 state school staff worked in school buildings.
Texas teacher unions that track infections say they were surprised at how low it was. In many parts of the country, teacher unions resisted the efforts of school systems to return to classrooms, claiming there were not enough guarantees.
“I don’t see the rate I expected at this particular point,” said Zeph Chief, president of the Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers.
He said this is partly because parents in communities most affected by the coronavirus are less willing to send their children back to school. And he predicted that the number will increase as students return to the buildings and if the pandemic gets worse this winter, as experts expect.
There is also evidence from the Northeast. The Network for Public Education, a nonprofit organization that supports traditional public school districts, monitored 37 school districts in Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania.
In the weeks since school started, there have been 23 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in 20 schools and no indication that the virus has spread to schools, said Carol Burris, the network’s executive director.
The districts studied were in counties with low coronavirus rates and all had to wear masks.
“So far, in the schools we are following … there have been no outbreaks, even when someone tests positive for covid-19,” Burris said.
“We don’t see schools as crucibles for forward transmission,” said Sara Johnson, an associate professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “It is reasonable to say that it looks promising at this point.”
He added that the data suggests schools should bring students back “slowly and carefully” and with safeguards to protect teachers and staff members. “This data is promising but covid is still a big threat to people,” he said.
These findings were highlighted by a review this week in the journal Science, a leading academic journal. He found that children and adolescents run a “much lower risk” for the coronavirus and said the assumptions that schoolchildren are a “key component” of the chain of transmission are “most likely” wrong.
“With respect to the risk of contracting diseases, children and adolescents have been disproportionately affected by the lockdown measures,” he said.
Early data is emerging as school officials continue to evaluate their plans and consider whether they want to change course. Many districts that have started with full distance education are considering whether they want to introduce in-person options for some students or on certain days.
The data is useful but superintendents will want more details, such as information on districts similar to their own and which covid mitigation strategies appear to have worked, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, which is a co- sponsor of the new dashboard reporting tool.
He called the early data “potentially optimistic,” but said it was premature for districts to change course and decide to open their own buildings.
Much of the concern centers on the teachers and other adults in the building, as data shows that covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is much more deadly for older patients.
According to the American Federation of Teachers, 14 active teachers, principals, and counselors have died of covid-19 since the beginning of the school year, although it is not possible to conclude that any of them have contracted the coronavirus at school.
Some experts, including teachers’ union officials, say it appears coronavirus rates are lower in school districts where face coverings are required and policies are enforced to keep students apart in the building, although there is little data to prove the correlation.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the “science has worked” in districts that have taken adequate precautions.
“We don’t have all the information, that’s true, but I’m not surprised things went well,” she said. He speculated that the first images of Georgia’s schools that went viral showing students crammed into hallways without masks “scared people enough” to institute masks and physical distancing policies.
Nationally, however, these policies vary widely. The new dashboard asked about covid mitigation strategies and found that around 7 out of 10 schools required staff members and students to wear masks. About half of the meetings limited to 25 people or fewer. About four in 10 kept students in a classroom, with about the same portion checking the temperatures upon arrival.
On the outskirts of Atlanta, the Cherokee County School District encourages but does not require masks for students in most circumstances and only requires them for teachers and staff members when they are unable to keep their distance. Officials tried to reduce crowds in hallways by staggering bell times and eliminating large gatherings such as assemblies.
Schools opened for in-person learning in early August, when coronavirus cases in the area were high and at least 381 positive cases have been identified since then, each of which triggered a two-week teacher quarantine. and classmates who may have been exposed. At one point, more than 2,329 people were in quarantine and three of the six high schools were temporarily closed.
District spokeswoman Barbara Jacoby said none of the cases had been definitively linked to school exposure, although about a dozen had not been ruled out.
“Our community is completely open,” he said. “You can go not only to school but also to youth sports, places of worship, scouts, swimming pools. You can go anywhere. Hence it is difficult for public health officials to determine where transmission occurs. Many of these students interact together outside of school. “
Last week, the number of quarantined students and staff members in the district dropped to around 400, with 67 positive cases identified. The district has around 42,000 students.
Jacoby said that, on the whole, things had gone “better than expected”.
A problem in evaluating school curricula is not that all schools and not all states provide useful data. Some districts in the country, such as Cherokee, are reporting each case to the public. But others report nothing.
In Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis (R) pushed schools to open even in areas with high coronavirus positivity rates, some counties have come under pressure not to release school-specific coronavirus information, citing privacy concerns. .
A promised state school coronavirus dashboard has not yet been produced, although there is a “pediatric report” showing some data, by county, of cases of Floridians under the age of 18. According to the latest report, as of Tuesday, a 13.7 percent positive case rate among children between the ages of 1 and 17.
Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state teachers’ union, said it was difficult to discern the true situation.
“There is no real case reporting going on in the state,” he said. “There is no mechanism for consistent and fair communication, so there is no way to analyze what is really going on in our schools.”