Covid-19 and school reopenings: what we’ve learned so far in the US

America is now in the middle of a big experiment: reopening schools and colleges during the Covid-19 pandemic. And so far, how things are going depends on which type of school is involved.

At the K-12 level, while there have been some outbreaks, reopenings haven’t led to the explosion of cases that some feared. Still, this comes with a big caveat: Many schools haven’t fully opened up yet, partly or entirely limiting teaching to virtual sessions. And for schools that have opened, we still don’t have very good data on K-12 schools’ reopenings, and there’s still a lot we simply don’t know about how kids transmit the coronavirus.

According to the Covid Monitor, there have been more than 52,000 cases in K-12 schools as of October 15. That’s significant, but a small portion of the 3 million coronavirus cases in the US since August. At the very least, K-12 schools don’t seem to be a primary driver of Covid-19 in the US right now.

“It hasn’t been as chaotic as I had anticipated,” Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University, told me. “I expected things would be worse by now, but it’s been going all right so far in general.”

But at colleges and universities, reopening appears to be going much worse, with multiple big outbreaks over the past few months. The problem so far doesn’t seem to be transmission within classrooms so much as transmission outside of them — in dorms, fraternities, sororities, bars, restaurants, and other indoor spaces used to congregate, party, eat, and drink.

The outbreaks spawned almost immediately as colleges and universities reopened. In September, a USA Today analysis found college towns comprised 19 of the 25 biggest coronavirus outbreaks in the US. Outbreaks have forced some colleges and universities to change plans and permanently or temporarily move classes online across the country, from California to Michigan to North Carolina.

The college outbreaks have resulted in deaths. In September, 19-year-old Appalachian State University student Chad Dorrill died, despite friends and family describing him as a “super healthy” athlete with a lack of known preexisting conditions. Dorrill seemingly contracted the coronavirus while living off-campus — leading to neurological complications, potentially caused by undetected Guillain-Barré syndrome, that ultimately killed him.

“It’s not a hoax, that this virus really does exist,” Emma Crider, a student at Appalachian State, told the New York Times. “Before this, the overall mentality was ‘out of sight, out of mind.’”

Some colleges and universities are trying to prevent and counter these outbreaks with extremely aggressive testing regimes, testing each student on campus up to twice a week. The hope is that this will catch any new coronavirus cases before they lead to massive outbreaks — mirroring the kind of strategy employed in Germany, New Zealand, and South Korea to control their respective epidemics. But it’s too early to say how this will work in a higher education setting, especially in communities that have big Covid-19 epidemics outside their schools.

How this all plays out could help decide whether America sees a much-feared coronavirus surge this fall and winter. Coupled with the holidays bringing people together and changing weather pushing some parts of the country indoors, experts worry that school reopenings could lead to a big spike in Covid-19 in the coming months. While the holidays and weather remain in play, mitigating the spread from schools could stop at least one point of concern.

There are consequences beyond Covid-19, too. There’s already solid evidence that remote learning isn’t good enough to make up for the benefits of in-person teaching, meaning kids fall further and further behind as long as schools don’t fully reopen. And when kids aren’t sent off to school, it’s tremendously disruptive to entire families — forcing parents to stay home, often having to supervise their kids to make sure they’re actually logging on to their classes.

“We’re really not acknowledging how much work and strain it is on families when you have a kindergartner doing virtual learning,” Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist, told me.

A failure to get Covid-19 under control and reopen schools, then, doesn’t just mean more coronavirus cases and deaths — on top of the more than 210,000 deaths the US has already seen — but impacts that will cascade over the short and long term across American society.

K-12 reopenings seem to be going fine overall, but there’s a lot we don’t know

It’s still unclear how many K-12 schools, exactly, have fully reopened. Given the country’s sprawling network of school districts, each under varying levels of state and local control, we simply don’t have a good way to track what every school is doing at a national level.

According to Education Week, four states have ordered schools to reopen. Seven, along with Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, have mandated partial or full closures. The remaining 39 states have by and large left it up to individual school districts or local governments to decide.

Schools can try to fully restart in-person learning, go remote only, or follow a hybrid model. Among those allowing in-person teaching, some require masks for teachers and students. Some are putting students into cohorts or pods — meaning they have to stick to the same group of peers while in school. Some have spread out desks or limited capacity in classes, and have shifted schedules to reduce how many people are in the building at any moment. A few have taken more aggressive measures, like improving ventilation systems in schools, holding at least some classes outside, or instituted aggressive testing programs.

So far, there doesn’t seem to have been a massive surge of Covid-19 due to K-12 schools reopening for in-person instruction. Confirmed cases in K-12 schools make up less than 2 percent of all cases reported in the US since August.

One caveat: A lot of states and districts still aren’t reporting Covid-19 cases in K-12 schools. The Covid Monitor, as an independent group, collects public and media reports on top of the official data to try to fill in the gaps. But it’s certainly missing a lot of cases, meaning its number is a minimum estimate.

Still, it certainly seems like the massive epidemics many feared haven’t happened (at least yet). A USA Today analysis of Florida’s school reopenings, for example, concluded, “Among the counties seeing surges in overall cases, it’s college-age adults — not schoolchildren — driving the trend.” In California, officials similarly reported that they so far had found no link between K-12 schools reopening and increased coronavirus transmission.

“There are some reasons to be hopeful,” Katherine Auger, a health policy researcher at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, told me. “We aren’t hearing of huge outbreak stories in the news.”

Experts cautioned, however, that the results are early. And they shouldn’t be used as an excuse to open recklessly or without proper safety measures like social distancing, masking, testing, and contact tracing.

Part of the problem is there’s still a lot we don’t know about K-12 schools’ ability to spread Covid-19. For one, we still don’t know for certain how much children, especially younger kids, spread the coronavirus.

What we do know with more certainty is that there seem to be differences in how sick kids get from Covid-19, depending on age. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that adolescents ages 12 to 17 were roughly twice as likely as children ages 5 to 11 years old to have a confirmed coronavirus infection. Whether that means younger children are less likely to get and transmit the coronavirus, or merely less likely to develop significant symptoms and get tested, is still an open question.

The testing component is particularly important. As the New York Times reported, it can be very difficult to get a coronavirus test for younger children. If kids can’t get tested, then new infections simply aren’t going to get caught and recorded. Some schools are taking steps to test their staff and students, but many are not — blinding them to potential outbreaks.

Still, some experts have cited data like this to argue that at least K-3, K-5, or K-8 schools could open safely, with few, if any, serious outbreaks. “Those are the kids who need the in-person learning, need the social interaction,” Auger said. “It makes sense developmentally that college students and high school students would be able to learn more readily in a remote setting.”

One concern is that, even if the coronavirus doesn’t seem to transmit among children or hurt them as much, the same isn’t necessarily true for teachers. That fear has led a lot of teachers, backed by powerful unions, to resist full or even partial reopenings.

Colleges and universities seem to be going worse — with some exceptions

Colleges and universities have taken a variety of approaches in reopening. Some are trying to fully reopen, many are sticking to online only, and others are doing a hybrid model. Some allow students to live on campus, although typically at a reduced capacity. Many of the schools are taking a fairly hands-off approach to what students do — merely recommending social distancing and masking — although some have adopted very aggressive testing and masking regimes.

So far, the experience has ranged from mostly fine to outright disasters, with major outbreaks forcing some universities and colleges across the country to move classes back online temporarily or permanently, sometimes after just weeks of reopening.

The outbreaks don’t appear to originate in classrooms, but rather in places where students tend to work, socialize, and party. A recent CDC study backed this up, concluding that Covid-19 clusters in an unnamed North Carolina university were likely fueled by “student gatherings and congregate living settings, both on and off campus.”

To put it another way, the outbreaks seem to be coming from dorms, fraternities, sororities, bars, and restaurants. It’s in these kinds of indoor spaces, where college students work, party, eat, and drink, that Covid-19 has spread. Experts have described large parties, indoor dining, and bars as especially risky: People are close together for long periods of time; they can’t wear masks as they eat or drink; the air can’t dilute the virus like it can outdoors; and alcohol could lead people to drop their guards further.

This was predictable: As Smith said, “This is what you would expect from college students.”

For young people, a big consideration is that Covid-19 is simply less threatening to them than to older adults. That may make them feel like they can party and socialize without major consequences.

But young people can still get sick and die from Covid-19 — and some have. Young people also eventually socialize with their parents, grandparents, teachers, and other older peers. Another CDC study found this to be a consistent trend over the summer: Outbreaks would start among the young, eventually spreading to older populations — leading to many more cases and deaths as a result. That could be particularly bad for colleges and universities if students carry the virus around the country when they go back home for holidays or breaks, potentially triggering epidemics not just locally at or near their campuses but nationwide.

To avoid such outbreaks, some colleges and universities have embraced very aggressive testing regimes — testing all students as they get on campus, then testing each of them two times a week after. By constantly testing, these schools hope to stop a few cases from turning into a big outbreak.

On top of testing and tracing, colleges and universities have taken various steps to get their students to follow other basic Covid-19 precautions, such as social distancing and masking. Some universities have outright prohibited their students, with the threat of suspension or expulsion, from going to parties or other gatherings, or even interacting with anyone outside of their dorm and classes.

Whether all of that works remains to be seen. For testing and tracing, the early results seem promising, with several of the most aggressive schools reporting few, if any, Covid-19 cases. And it follows the kind of model that’s helped other places, including whole nations, control their epidemics.

Some experts are worried that the aggressive testing regimes could lead to a false sense of security. They pointed to the White House, where very aggressive testing has been used to justify relaxing on social distancing and masking. That seemed to contribute to the ongoing outbreak at the White House, spanning from President Donald Trump to a presidential valet.

Aggressive testing “is not a replacement for all the other measures,” Lauren Ancel Meyers, a mathematical biologist at the University of Texas Austin, told me. “It’s just a needed addition to armament of intervention strategies that we have.”

A recent New York Times story showed that false sense of security in action, reporting that “students like Logan Morrione can wander on and off the Waterville, Maine, [Colby College] campus, attend most classes in person and even do without masks in some social situations.”

Truly reopening schools requires getting Covid-19 under control

Setting aside whatever is happening within classrooms, the biggest problem for schools is that America still has a lot of coronavirus cases. In the past week, the US reported more than double the cases per person a day as Canada and at least 100 times the cases per person a day as South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.

With so many cases across the US, and especially in educational settings where students are coming in from around the country, there are simply more chances that the virus will end up on campus. Meyers emphasized this is the No. 1 factor any school should consider before reopening.

This is why many experts spent much of the summer calling for America to suppress the coronavirus: If cases were driven to a low enough level, that could allow schools, from K-12 to colleges and universities, to open much more safely.

But despite experts’ warnings, many states reopened bars and indoor dining — fueling large outbreaks. Some places were slow to mandate masks, with 17 states still not requiring them. The US, in effect, prioritized a false sense of normalcy and the reopening of bars and indoor dining over the reopening of schools. Universities are seeing this directly as bars and indoor dining lead to a surge of coronavirus cases on campus.

“It’s something we really should have seen coming,” Popescu said.

The bad outcomes within some schools could set up the US for a broader vicious cycle: If colleges and universities lead to Covid-19 spikes, they could make it more difficult for K-12 schools to reopen. That, some experts argued, would be a backward outcome. “It’s much easier to do virtual learning for universities and for high schools,” Popescu argued.

So it’s the problem of community transmission, experts say, that must take priority over all other safety precautions within schools. As long as the US doesn’t get its whole coronavirus epidemic under control — whether due to incompetence from the Trump administration or other officials — schools are, just like other public settings, going to be at risk for Covid-19.

That’s not to say schools can’t take steps to make themselves safer. They can still embrace social distancing, masking, testing, and tracing. They can try to have fewer people on their campuses — by staggering schedules, or reducing the numbers of people in classrooms or dorms. They can encourage or mandate students to only socialize within a small group of people — by establishing a pod or cohorting, or by limiting students to people that they live or go to class with. They could try to improve ventilation in buildings, or hold more classes and events outside.

But these precautions aren’t going to be consistently effective if the virus is raging in the broader community.

If this isn’t taken seriously, it could, when paired with the holidays and people going inside to avoid the cold, contribute to a surge in coronavirus cases this fall and winter. America’s already bad Covid-19 epidemic, then, would get even worse.


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