The Data About School Reopening Is Still Mixed — But One Thing Is Consistent

While the United States grapples with decision about whether to reopen schools, and how, other nations have already done so, with apparent success. The measures implemented and the results vary, but one thing is consistent: a positive outcome seems linked to compliance with safety measures, and with declining cases and spread overall.

rules for reopening school
NANJING, CHINA – JULY 11: Students wear face masks with blessing messages during a graduation ceremony at a primary school on July 11, 2020 in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province of China. (Photo by Yang Bo/China News Service via Getty Images)

Science covered the results as schools around the world worked to reopen. Some have even been able to relax their distancing measures since kids have returned to classes.

Much of the data is hopeful — for instance, in Crépy-en-Valois, in France, cases dropped off in the middle and high school around winter break, but stayed at their steady (relatively low) rate in elementary schoolers, suggesting that smaller children transmit the virus less as well as showing fewer and less severe symptoms.

Schools are experimenting with a variety of safety procedures, ranging from masks, to forbidding contact with other students, to creating small ‘pods’ of a few students who are allowed contact only within their group.

In fact, data so far makes the older children the greater concern.

Other outbreaks also suggest that elementary school pupils pose a smaller threat than older students. Among the worst schoolwide outbreaks was at Gymnasium Rehavia, a middle and high school in Jerusalem, where 153 students and 25 staff were infected in late May and early June. An outbreak at a New Zealand high school before that country’s shutdown infected 96 people, including students, teachers, staff, and parents. In contrast, a neighboring elementary school saw few cases.

However, compliance and decreased community spread seems to be another key:

In China, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam—where masks are already widely accepted and worn by many during flu season—schools require them for almost all students and their teachers. China allows students to remove masks only for lunch, when children are separated by glass or plastic partitions. Israel requires masks for children older than age 7 outside the classroom, and for children in fourth grade and above all day—and they comply.

The data led researchers to conclude that when infection rates are low overall, school reopening does not appear to cause significant new outbreaks.

In much of the U.S., infection rates are not low, or on the decline. The Orlando Sentinal reported Sunday that Florida, for instance, broke several records, including the most new cases in a day in any state (a record that New York, then a hotspot, formerly held), and the largest number of cases, deaths, and tests in a week. Notably, there was also a record set for lowest positivity rate for tests, which defies the claim that more tests equal more cases.

Still, in many hotspots across the U.S., cases — and deaths — are still on the rise. The Trump administration’s testing chief has said deaths are expected to continue rising, and that unless mask compliance hits around 90% in hotspots, the virus spread will not be controlled.

As schools do open, Arnaud Fontanet, the Pasteur Institute epidemiologist who studied the spread in Crépy-en-Valois cited above, warns that high school students may have to be particularly cautious. “It’s still a bit speculative, [but older students] have to be very careful. They have mild disease, but they are contagious.”

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