A new analysis sheds light on what scientists and working parents alike have been waiting to find out: Does reopening schools cause an uptick in local coronavirus infections? According to USA Today, no.
Health experts and officials urged Florida to delay its start, but most schools in the state reopened full-time for in-person learning in mid-to-late August. The analysis found that Florida’s positive case counts among kids ages 5 to 17 declined through late September after peaking in July. Conversely, in the counties that did see a surge in cases, it was college-age adults, rather than school-age kids, driving the uptick.
The Florida counties that have reopened schools have strict mask mandates and are encouraging social distancing, while asking those who show symptoms or test positive for the virus to self-quarantine for 14 days. The only counties that haven’t reopened for in-person schooling are Miami-Dade and Broward, both of which were hit hardest by the pandemic in the summer. Both counties’ schools are slated to switch from virtual learning to in-person in mid-October.
As the global toll hits one million coronavirus deaths, Florida has seen over 700,000 cases, including more than 14,000 deaths. However, public health officials have found little evidence to show that reopening schools is as risky as we might believe. Brown University researchers recently found low levels of infection among students and teachers in the districts that have reopened their schools. Of more than 550 schools, including over 300 that reopened in-person, data beginning August 31 showed that 0.23 percent of students had a confirmed or suspected case of the coronavirus. For teachers, it was 0.49 percent. Looking solely at confirmed cases, the data showed only 0.078 percent for students and 0.15 percent for teachers.
The early data wasn’t so optimistic. A CDC study on South Korean schools showed that reopening causes surges in COVID-19 infections, which is what happened when the country reopened its schools. Further, the study found that children over 10 spread the virus just as well as adults, contrary to what scientists previously believed. Israel also reopened its schools when cases subsided in May, which led to hundreds of students, teachers and family members getting infected within a matter of weeks. The country then shut down its schools again.
Florida’s findings give hope to those who want kids back into the classroom. At least for now.
Perhaps because sitting in a classroom is considered a lower-risk transmission activity, or because safety mandates are being taken seriously, Florida’s data seems promising. However, the numbers may not paint the full picture. Cases are determinant on the amount of testing, and those who are asymptomatic may not know to get tested. Scientists told USA Today that the state may still see a surge in the coming weeks.
Recent research by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association found that children’s COVID-19 infections rose “dramatically” between April and September, growing from 2.2 percent to 10 percent of all COVID-19 cases nationwide. In the last eight weeks, children represented between 12 to 15.9 percent of newly reported cases each week, the study found.
“These rising numbers concern us greatly, as the children’s cases reflect the increasing virus spread in our communities,” AAP President Sally Goza, MD, FAAP, said in the press release. “While children generally don’t get as sick with the coronavirus as adults, they are not immune and there is much to learn about how easily they can transmit it to others. We must keep our children—and each other—healthy by following the recommended safety measures like washing hands, wearing cloth face coverings and staying 6 feet apart from others.”
New York City, the epicenter of the state that saw the most COVID-19 deaths but went on to successfully “flatten the curve,” reopened public schools for in-person learning this week. It is the only major school district in the nation to do so. What happens in the city’s schools will help paint a better picture for the rest of the US on how reopening impacts communities.
What we do know is this: masks, sanitary measures and social distancing are working to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Only time will tell how much longer working parents will be juggling virtual school with a full-time job.