Schools Aren’t Spreading COVID-19

Economist Emily Oster’s op-ed in the Washington Post strikes me as important. In the piece she points out two things. First, that the reports of cases of COVID-19 among students, faculty, and staff of schools report cases contracted by people who are in the schools not necessarily disease contracted in school and, second, that if people were contracting disease in school you would expect the school figures to run ahead of those of community spread. They’re tracking the level of community spread.

She concludes:

Other countries have managed to keep schools open even while locking everything else down. They see the essential need for in-person schooling and have been willing to invest the resources necessary to make sure this continues safely. In the United States, especially as infection rates continue to rise, it’s not surprising that teachers are afraid to return to the classroom. They understandably want and deserve better personal protective equipment, testing, contact tracing and ventilation.

But what the data increasingly shows is that the best way to protect teachers and students isn’t to shut down schools. It’s to focus on all the measures that will keep them — and their families, friends and neighbors — safe outside the classroom.

which I agree with broadly. My speculation is that those arguing to close the schools are weighting the risks to faculty and staff more highly than the costs of the lack of in-person schooling to students. I hope Dr. Oster’s examination of the data will help to sway that calculation.

8 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    I don’t have access to the full article, but one of the things that has bothered me about school policies is the lack of any acknowledgement about what students will do with all of their free time from education and school-related activities. If they suddenly have most of the day free to do what they want, they will probably do things that have as great a possibility of contributing to spread as being in school. And I’m not just talking about being irresponsible, but having full-time jobs while in high school.

  • Andy Link

    Today is the last day of in-person school in our district for the rest of the semester.

    Our district has a Covid dashboard and currently, there are 156 current and confirmed positive cases out of a total student, staff, and teacher population of just under 30k.

    The decision to go all-online wasn’t due to the case numbers, which increased from 30-40 to 150 in the last month. The biggest challenge for our district is the mandatory quarantines.

    Whenever anyone has “covid-like symptoms” all students and staff that had contact with the person go into quarantine. If the person with symptoms gets a test and it comes back negative, then the quarantine is lifted. Otherwise, it lasts 14 days. Given that testing is not timely and tests for students are the parent’s responsibility, quarantines usually last at least a week.

    So while we have a small number of actual covid infections in the district, over 10% of students and staff are under quarantine – either from contact with one of the 156 covid positives, or due to state-mandated quarantines stemming from potential exposure to those who have “covid-like symptoms.”

    It’s these quarantines that ended up closing 1/3 of the district schools as of last week due to lack of sufficient staff. And with the number under quarantine increasing daily, this problem was only getting worse. So the district leadership made the decision to just go all online for the rest of the semester because it was clear that most of the schools would not have sufficient staff to stay open anyway.

    And there’s also a problem here with bus drivers. Our district has a perennial shortage of bus drivers with barely enough to fill the need for transport too and from school in a normal year. Covid quarantines have hit drivers hard as well so there aren’t enough drivers to even get kids to school consistently.

    Our district has tried to have the maximum amount of in-person schools as possible within the state and county mandates. But it’s just not possible anymore unless those mandates change.

    At least our district was smart and used the education money from the CARES act to purchase iPads and computers for every student in the district, as well as mobile hotpsots for poor students without internet access at home. But the entire situation still sucks.

  • Drew Link

    My daughter, a teacher in a DC charter school, agrees. She is, as a first hand witness, apoplectic about the harm being done to these “underprivileged” kids because of distancing policy. She cares; the politicians, well. They have asked for volunteers to do on site teaching. Her hand went up first.

    Not going to get that with the Teachers Union, my Democrat friends.

  • PD Shaw Link

    @andy, something similar happened to our fire department recently. Someone tested positive and more than one-third of all firemen had to quarantine. It turned out that a quarter of those quarantined tested positive, including the fire chief, who I suspect was probably the carrier between fire stations. I don’t know how long they quarantined because I think they kept this under wraps so people wouldn’t freak out.

    Our schools never opened, though they planned on choice of hybrid or remote. The school board is simply, but very deeply risk adverse. They cannot imagine anything positive and can’t accept the responsibility of what appear to be uncontrollable risks. And I think they know the harm they are doing, though I think some thought the situation would be better by the second quarter so that they could reopen, instead of worse. Some of has said they regret not opening earlier when they could.

  • steve Link

    2 of my staff out in the last few weeks were home because their kids tested positive. One of them ended up positive, the other not. A 9 y/o and a 14 y/o. It certainly happens. I think the literature suggests the risk is really low for younger kids. Below some age, 12-14, they should pretty clearly be in school. Above that age less clear.

    “Not going to get that with the Teachers Union, my Democrat friends.”

    Almost all PA teachers are in unions. Most of the schools in our area are going in person. One of our people coaches her kid’s soccer team. She bought them sports masks, an in thing now. The kids like them and dont complain. Of course they do match and it is a girls team, but hey.


  • Grey Shambler Link

    Another take suggesting super spreaders are individuals with a higher viral load than others who are infected. /2020-11-superspreader-events-key-driver-covid-.html

  • steve Link

    BTW, on the local front we are now starting to see more ICU admissions. The state is taking a more measured response. At least so far they are going to let individual hospitals manage as they see fit. If our Covid admissions continue at the current rate I think we have 2-3 weeks before we need to cut back on elective stuff. We amy run out of gloves sometime in January or February.

    We still are not able to test as we would like. Our large scale Covid testing is done though the large commercial labs. They dont have the capacity or reagents. What we have seen in our area is that the lab business is pretty cutthroat. Usually end up with one or two labs winning out on pricing. However, that means theydont have the capacity to ramp up. Plus, they are reluctant to ramp up if this is just temporary.


  • Below some age, 12-14, they should pretty clearly be in school. Above that age less clear.

    Agreed. The analysis suggests that not only does being in school not result in heightened risk for them, it doesn’t result in heightened risk for teachers or staff. I’m not unsympathetic with the concerns of teachers and staff but we need to recognize that they’re reacting from fear rather than reason or evidence.

    Whatever the situation was nearly a year ago at this point we have two distinct problems and they’re feeding each other: COVID-19 and the panic over COVID-19.

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