Economist’s view: Schools aren’t super-spreaders

Economist Emily Oster and a group of data scientists have been working with school principal and superintendent associations to collect data on the coronavirus in schools. The results? “Schools do not, in fact, appear to be major spreaders of COVID-19.”

Our data on almost 200,000 kids in 47 states from the last two weeks of September revealed an infection rate of 0.13 percent among students and 0.24 percent among staff. That’s about 1.3 infections over two weeks in a school of 1,000 kids, or 2.2 infections over two weeks in a group of 1,000 staff. Even in high-risk areas of the country, the student rates were well under half a percent. (You can see all the data here.)

Oster compares their data results to other sources to confirm similar low rates.

Texas reported 1,490 cases among students for the week ending on September 27, with 1,080,317 students estimated at school—a rate of about 0.14 percent. The staff rate was lower, about 0.10 percent.

And while these numbers are not zero, zero was never a realistic expectation, Oster continues.

We know that children can get COVID-19, even if they do tend to have less serious cases. Even if there were no spread in schools, we’d see some cases, because students and teachers can contract the disease off campus. But the numbers are small—smaller than what many had forecasted.

Despite this data, calls to keep schools closed until they are “completely” safe persist, which ignore the significant costs children are paying and could likely continue to pay from closed schools.

Distance learning has also posed child care challenges for parents. And even though cities have attempted to alleviate this burden—which particularly impacts low-income students of color—by opening up schools as learning centers, questions remain about what is driving these decisions. “If school isn’t safe for everyone, why is it safe for low-income students? And if school is safe for low-income students, why isn’t it safe for everyone?” Oster asks.

Nobody wants to make reckless decisions that put people at risk, but the risks involved by not re-opening should not be quickly dismissed.