When students returned to classrooms this fall, many parents were ecstatic about having somewhere for their children to go, at least for a few days a week. But other parents, and some educators and public health officials, worried schools might become their own little COVID-19 hot zones.
So far that’s not the case.
“I think seeing how it has played out is really good news,” said Charlotte Reynolds, communications director for Teton County School District No. 1.
Now that schools have been in session for a couple of months, or longer in some places, data is emerging that shows COVID-19 transmission seems to be low in schools. A study done at Brown University using data from hundreds of schools around the country found that in the two weeks from Sept. 28 to Oct. 11, just 0.142% of students had a lab-confirmed case of COVID-19, or 10 out of every 100,000.
In that same time, 0.37% of teachers (27 out of every 100,000) had a confirmed case.
“We are definitely seeing some cases in schools, but we’re not seeing these kind of large outbreaks that would suggest that schools themselves are at fault for spreading the virus a lot,” Brown University economist Emily Oster told NPR.
In Teton County schools, nurses track virus cases on a daily basis but haven’t kept a running tally, so Reynolds wasn’t able to get an exact number of students and teachers who have contracted COVID-19. The district’s estimate was roughly 30 cases among students and staff since the year began, but how they were split is unknown.
Taking 3,500 as a rough estimate of the district’s population (approximately 3,000 students and 500 staff), that’s a rate of 0.86% since the school year began, which is lower than the community infection rate. Since the first day of school, 334 new cases were reported in Teton County, according to the JHCovid.com dashboard, which represents 1.42% of the population.
In light of the data, district administrators recognize parents will want to know why students remain under a hybrid schedule. Each month the board has received a plethora of public comment regarding the school schedule.
The letters run the gamut, from thankful missives about the district’s COVID-19 protocols to displeased parents who either want to see more precautions like surveillance testing or want to see kids back in school full time. The recent data could back up the cries for more in-person days, but in school board meetings and interviews, educators and administrators credit the district’s policies and hybrid schedule for the low viral transmission and say they are not prepared to return to full-time instruction.
The small class sizes afforded by putting elementary school students in pods and splitting secondary classes into two groups means teachers can maintain social distancing. Particularly at the middle and high schools, Reynolds said, a return to full-time in-person instruction would take away that ability.
“With just the sheer numbers of people that would be in those buildings, we wouldn’t be able to maintain the distance. We wouldn’t be able to keep close tabs on wearing face masks consistently and properly throughout the day,” she said.
None of that means COVID-19 hasn’t been linked to schools. Some districts have seen much higher transmission rates than the Brown University researchers found, including Canyons School District in a wealthy suburb of Salt Lake City.
One high school there saw 90 cases in two weeks, The New York Times reported. However, the district opened its schools when caseloads in the community were much higher than in Teton County, and it didn’t require mask wearing.
“I think that is a perfect cautionary tale,” Reynolds said. “And I think that as we continue to see districts who are having success, they’re implementing similar efforts to what we are implementing.”
Teton County schools so far haven’t seen a documented case of in-school transmission, though Reynolds said the district has prepared for that to happen at some point. Even with that lack of cases, administrators believe the best way to keep kids safe is to stay the course.
“They want to be there, and we want them there,” Reynolds said about full-time classroom instruction. “At the same time, I think what we’re doing right now is working.”