WASHINGTON — A study that analyzed school reopenings across the United Kingdom last spring and early summer found “very low” rates of infection, as well as a lack of major outbreaks, at all education levels. When there were outbreaks, they were small and tended to involve teachers or staffers bringing the coronavirus into schools from the outside community.
In keeping with that finding, the study also warned that there was a “strong correlation” between school-based infections and the presence of the coronavirus in the surrounding community.
The results thus offer a mixed verdict, endorsing the growing consensus that schools are safe to operate in a pandemic, but only if community spread is kept in abeyance.
In contrast to Europe, the U.S. has kept schools closed in many parts of the country, even where restaurants and bars remain open. Community spread remains high in parts of the country, leading many districts to pause reopening plans.
The nation’s largest school district, New York City, closed its schools last month after reaching the 3 percent positivity rate on diagnostic tests, a threshold set by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Elementary schools have since reopened across the five boroughs.
The new British study, published in the Lancet, examined coronavirus infections and outbreaks between June 1 and July 17, when students in some returned to school for a final session before the summer holiday. Students were allowed to return to childcare centers and grades 1, 6, 10 and 12. Essential workers could also send their kids back to school.
During that time, about 928,000 students attended 38,000 childcare centers, 15,600 primary schools and 4,000 secondary schools. In addition, 593,000 teachers and school staff were involved in the reopening effort. (Those figures are all averages, as the number of schools open, and the number of students attending those schools, fluctuated with time.)
The researchers found that British schools recorded 343 total cases during the June-July break. That included 113 individual cases; nine “coprimary” cases, which usually involved two siblings from the same family; and 55 outbreaks. Given the nearly 1 million students who returned to school, the researchers deemed school-based infections to be “uncommon.”
None of the children who contracted the coronavirus required hospitalization. Three staffers did, and one died, “probably acquiring the infection from a household member with confirmed COVID-19 who had acquired the infection in the community.”
The majority of the 55 outbreaks involved school staffers spreading the coronavirus to other staff (26) or to children (eight), as opposed to children spreading the coronavirus to adults (16) or to other children (five). And most of those outbreaks were small, with 53 percent of them “involving only one secondary case.” The average outbreak involved only two cases.
The finding seems to suggest that the behavior of adults is more indicative of whether an outbreak will take place than the behavior of children, which may be more difficult to control but also appears to be less predictive of coronavirus transmission.
Some teachers in the United States have said they are concerned about returning to school because they have not been provided with sufficient personal protective equipment, or because school districts have not properly prepared classrooms by upgrading ventilation systems or creating sufficient space between desks.
To the contrary, researchers found, teachers and staff are the ones who may be responsible for school-based transmission. “Staff members need to be more vigilant for exposure outside of educational settings to protect themselves, their families, and the educational setting,” the authors wrote. They concluded that “interventions should focus on reducing transmission in and among staff.”
The researchers also found that for every increase of five cases per 100,000 people in the general population of the surrounding community, the probability of an outbreak in a school increased by 72 percent. Public health experts have found that social activities like indoor drinking and dining drive community outbreaks. Children do not regularly patronize bars.
As for the students themselves, the researchers concluded that “children mainly acquired SARS-CoV-2 infection at home and most were asymptomatic,” meaning they never displayed any symptoms at all. (SARS-CoV-2 is the internationally accepted name for the coronavirus pathogen.) “Reassuringly, we found very little transmission between students, which is consistent with emerging literature for young children.”
That literature has consistently found that younger children appear to have natural protection against the virus. The study seems to offer hope to those who want to reopen elementary schools for in-person instruction while asking older children to continue learning remotely.
“Reassuringly, too, there were very few transmission events between staff and children, especially given the difficulties in maintaining physical distancing with younger children,” the British researchers wrote. That could allay the concerns of older teachers, or teachers with compromised immune systems. Some districts have allowed such teachers to continue teaching remotely while asking less vulnerable teachers to return to the classroom.
The study was published on the heels of a sobering new report by UNICEF, the United Nations agency that deals with child-related crises, that said school closures and other pandemic-related disruptions could lead to a “lost COVID generation.”
Noting that children rarely contract the coronavirus in schools, the report noted that “school closures can lead to drastically negative outcomes for children.”
President Trump has called on schools to reopen, but has provided them with none of the additional funding that educators say is necessary to conduct in-person instruction safely. President-elect Joe Biden has said he wants schools to reopen, but it is not clear how he plans to do so, especially since the powerful teachers’ unions with which he is closely aligned have been resistant to teaching in-person again.
This article was updated to reflect which grades returned to in person instruction last June.
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