Research finds few links between schools and COVID-19 cases

While many American students have returned to in-person classroom instruction, many of their peers have not. Continued school closures have been driven by different factors—from fear that reopened schools will be coronavirus super-spreaders to opposition from teachers’ unions that has slowed reopening efforts.

But such trepidation over in-person K-12 schooling doesn’t appear to be supported by science. As I shared here, Economist Emily Oster and a group of scientists have collected data on nearly 200,000 students in 47 states. The results? “Schools do not, in fact, appear to be major spreaders of COVID-19.” A study done in Ireland “showed no secondary transmissions of coronavirus among six infected children who had 1,155 social contacts while participating in activities such as choir practice, sports practice and woodwind practice,” shared Christina Ramirez, a biostatistics professor at UCLA. Similar findings in Australian schools. And in a study done in New South Wales. And in Germany. Oh, and a study by Institute Pasteur found no significant transmission of the virus among children or from students to teachers and that children in school were more likely to be infected by their parents.

In addition, NPR reports that two new international studies show “no consistent relationship between in-person K-12 schooling and the spread of the coronavirus” and a third U.S. study “shows no elevated risk to childcare workers who stayed on the job.”

Enric Álvarez at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya looked at different regions within Spain for his recent co-authored working paper. Spain’s second wave of coronavirus cases started before the school year began in September. Still, cases in one region dropped three weeks after schools reopened, while others continued rising at the same rate as before, and one stayed flat.

Nowhere, the research found, was there a spike that coincided with reopening: “What we found is that the school [being opened] makes absolutely no difference,” Álvarez told NPR.

Spain does extensive contact tracing, so Álvarez was also able to analyze how much schools are contributing to the spread of the coronavirus. Álvarez said his research suggests the answer is: not much. He found that, for all the students and staff who tested positive, 87% of them did not infect anyone else at the school. They were single cases.

Insights for Education is a foundation that advises education ministries around the globe. For their report, which was not peer reviewed, they analyzed school reopening dates and coronavirus trends from February through the end of September across 191 countries.

“There is no consistent pattern,” said Dr. Randa Grob-Zakhary, who heads the organization. “It’s not that closing schools leads to a decrease in cases, or that opening schools leads to a surge in cases.”

In Vietnam and Gambia, coronavirus cases rose during summer break but then dropped after schools reopened. “Japan, too, saw cases rise, and then fall again, all while schools were fully reopened,” continues NPR. Dr. Grob-Zakhary states that her research doesn’t say “that schools have nothing to do with cases” but that the data instead suggest “that opening schools does not inevitably lead to increased case numbers.”

What about the United States? In addition to Oster’s research that I previously cited, U.S. data analyzed by infectious disease specialist Dr. Preeti Malani at the University of Michigan’s medical school also, so far, do not indicate “that schools are a superspreader site.”

This is not to dismiss the tragic incidents of teachers dying of COVID or students contracting it, but, according to NPR, “it’s not immediately clear whether the educators contracted the virus at school, whether they are part of school-based clusters, or what safety precautions were or were not followed by the schools in question.”

Given the short-term and long-term negative impacts school closures have had on children academically, mentally, and even economically, and the little evidence that school closures have any measurable public health benefit related to the spread of COVID, what is guiding school closing-related decisions?