In that case, it doesn’t much matter what the data says. You’re boned.
An important caveat up front here: This isn’t a formal study aimed at examining a representative sample of American schools, or comparing schools in hot spots with schools in places with lower rates of transmission. We should be careful about drawing firm conclusions from it, since logically it may be the case that schools in districts with lower community spread are more likely to have reopened for in-class instruction than schools in districts where COVID is a higher risk. “Most of the nation’s largest districts opened with fully remote teaching,” WaPo notes, “so the data are largely from smaller communities.” It’s not terribly surprising that the virus wouldn’t be prevalent in schools located in areas where the virus isn’t very prevalent generally.
But still. This is encouraging, as even experts interviewed for the story acknowledged.
Tracking infections over a two-week period beginning Aug. 31, [researchers at Brown University] found that 0.23 percent of students had a confirmed or suspected case of covid-19. Among teachers, it was 0.49 percent. Looking only at confirmed cases, the rates were even lower: 0.078 percent for students and 0.15 percent for teachers…
Separately, early data from Texas also shows low levels of infection. In Texas, about 2,350 students reported positive covid-19 tests — or about 0.21 percent of the 1.1 million students attending school in person, according to data released last week. An additional 2,175 school employees tested positive, although a rate could not be calculated because it was not clear how many of the state’s more than 800,000 school staff members were working in school buildings…
There’s also evidence from the Northeast. The Network for Public Education, a nonprofit advocacy organization that supports traditional public school districts, has been tracking 37 school districts in Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania.
In the weeks since school has started, there have been 23 confirmed cases of covid-19 across 20 different schools and no indication that disease was spread in schools, said Carol Burris, the network’s executive director.
The Texas numbers are striking given the sheer number of students who are back in the classroom. And the professor at Brown who’s gathering the data points out that in many of these schools the rate of transmission is “much lower” than it is in the wider community. That is, the lack of infections doesn’t seem to be a pure product of lower community spread. It looks as if infections at school are just less likely than everyone thought.
Or maybe they’re just less detectable? If it’s true that most kids shake off the disease without a hitch, it’s possible that there are many more infections among students than we realize because few kids have symptoms that would alert them to the fact that they’re sick and need a test. Then again, if that were the case we’d expect a higher rate of infection among teachers. And schools are sending kids for COVID tests who’ve been in close contact with a classmate who’s tested positive, so presumably we’d be picking up many asymptomatic cases. Even Michael Osterholm, one of the gloomier infectious disease experts out there (he recently called for a national lockdown this fall to tamp down a second wave), told WaPo he’s encouraged by the lack of major outbreaks since schools reopened.
Colleges, however, are a different story:
Colleges and universities that reopened for face-to-face instruction might have caused tens of thousands of additional cases of Covid-19 in recent weeks, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Indiana University, the University of Washington and Davidson College.
The researchers estimated that an extra 3,200 cases a day occurred in the U.S. that likely wouldn’t have happened had schools kept classes online…
They found little uptick in case counts for those communities where students moved back to be near campus, but were taking classes online. The biggest surge came near schools with in-person instruction, with particular spikes in places where students came from hot-spot zones elsewhere in the country.
The mystery of why younger kids seem largely immune from COVID while older ones are susceptible has bedeviled scientists from the start. A South Korean study published in July found that kids under 10 were around half as likely to spread the disease as adults were, which may be a function of something as simple as their height. (The viral particles they exhale are closer to the ground and thus away from adults’ noses and mouths.) If the data today about elementary schools being safer than thought while colleges remain risky holds up, it’ll be a victory for Sweden. That was their approach since the beginning of the pandemic, switching high schools and universities to distance learning as the virus spread early on but keeping elementary schools open, almost uniquely among western nations.
Needless to say, this new data from Brown will put intense pressure on local pols to reopen schools sooner than they’re willing, especially Bill de Blasio in New York. Community spread in NYC is minimal and today’s numbers suggest that it’ll remain minimal within schools regardless, so what’s his excuse for continuing to postpone the start of in-class instruction? Just remember one thing, though: There *is* data that cuts the other way, suggesting that even younger kids can seed a large cluster of infections. Revisit the CDC’s study of a Georgia summer camp that found 76 percent of attendees infected within a week. Clearly the dynamic that spread infection there isn’t being replicated in U.S. schools right now or the Brown data wouldn’t be nearly as encouraging as it is, but today’s numbers are based on just two weeks or so of class in many cases.
Also revisit what happened in Israel, which got past its initial wave of COVID in May and decided to reopen schools completely. Result: A major outbreak at a high school in Jerusalem that ended up spreading into the community. Cases began climbing, reaching 98 on June 1, and have kept climbing ever since. On September 16, more than 6,000 positive tests were recorded. Israel is now in a lockdown to try to control the spread, the first western country to resort to that since spring.
The lesson, I think, is simply to go slow. Have kids wear masks and social-distance to whatever extent feasible and resist the urge to assume that schools can revert to total normalcy, as Israel did. If we do that, maybe we’ll be okay. Maybe?