School & District Management What the Research Says

Will Opening Schools Make the Pandemic Worse?

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 18, 2020 4 min read
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From remote learning for young children to playground infection risks, schooling under the pandemic is raising a lot of questions for teachers and education leaders. This new research column aims to help readers understand what the research says—and doesn’t say—about our new context for learning. If you have a question, please send it to ssparks@educationweek.org.

Will reopening schools cause the nation’s already simmering coronavirus pandemic to boil over? While the picture from studies and reopenings in other countries is beginning to come into focus, it’s unlikely school and district leaders will have a clear answer before they have to make their own decisions for this fall.

After relatively scant research on children and the coronavirus in the early months of the pandemic, there has been slowly building consensus around just a few findings: that children, particularly pre-adolescents, appear to be less likely to contract the disease; and that the majority of those that do have either mild or no symptoms. In a new study, the American Academy of Pediatrics analyzed data on COVID-19 infection rates in 49 states, New York City, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, and Guam. It found that of the more than 380,000 total COVID-19 cases reported so far among children, nearly 180,000 have been reported from July 9 to August 9—a 90 percent jump within a month. That represents an infection rate of 501 for every 100,000 children.

In more than half of states, at least 1 in 10 people with COVID-19 now is a child or adolescent. The AAP has found that children still make up only 3 percent to 12 percent of all those tested for COVID-19 in the states. In the absence of widescale testing, researchers have relied on case studies of existing outbreaks and comparing the relative amount of viral particles in children and adults to try to compare how much they may pass on.

The last several weeks have brought a flurry of new, more school-focused findings, including:

• One University of Texas-Austin analysis of the New York Times’ pandemic tracking data suggested 4 in 5 Americans live in a county where the rate of COVID-19 infection in the community is high enough that at least one student or staff member at a 500-student school will show up with the illness if schools reopen in fall. However, epidemiologists pointed out that its projections likely overestimate that risk because they were based on what was likely a sicker-than-normal sample of children.

• Another study that tracked the timing of school closures and incidence of COVID-19 in U.S. communities from March through early May finds statewide school closures were associated—in time—with a 68 percent drop in the weekly incidence of the disease and 58 percent fewer deaths per week. Over a 26-day period, states that shuttered schools when their community infections were in the lowest 25 percent had nearly 130 fewer cases per 100,000 people than states that waited until their community infection rates were in the highest quartile—representing some 1.37 million fewer cases total during that time.

• By contrast, a research analysis by Canada’s public health agency and McMaster University which looked at contact tracing and case studies of outbreaks found that children 10 and under didn’t drive coronavirus outbreaks in schools or daycares. When they did occur, they tended to be traced back to adults in the school or the children’s families.

• A forthcoming multi-study review and a separate study of children and adults in South Korea both suggested that high school-aged students may be significantly more likely to contract COVID-19 than elementary-aged children. While the studies offer somewhat mixed evidence on how infectious children may be and what role they contribute to the spread of the pandemic, they do highlight one keystone for district leaders’ decisions about school reopening: Community virus rates can make a big difference in whether a school’s reopening improves access to learning or spreads disease.

The journal Science found, in a review of 20 countries’ school reopenings, that while requiring face masks and social distancing, and keeping students in small cohorts (so-called “pandemic pods” among some U.S. schools and parents) did reduce outbreaks, the biggest factor was the overall rate of infection circulating in the community.

Countries that reopened schools with low community infection rates, such as in Denmark, have seen overall COVID-19 rates continue to decline even after schools and daycares opened.

Others, such as Israel, reopened schools amid higher community infection rates and had to shutter them after significant outbreaks.

Building public confidence could be a major challenge. As schools across the United States have begun to reopen for in-person instruction in the last few weeks, districts in several states including Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, and Mississippi have been forced to send more than a thousand students into quarantine following coronavirus outbreaks, particularly in secondary schools.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 19, 2020 edition of Education Week

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