MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, January 28th, 2021.
Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, reopening schools.
President Joe Biden says the need to reopen schools is a “national emergency.” And several of the executive orders he signed last week target objections to bringing students back to class. Those orders direct federal agencies to send more personal protective equipment to schools and make COVID test kits available.
REICHARD: Still, teachers in many large districts aren’t convinced. They insist it’s not safe for them or their students to return to class. But a new study published last month in the medical journal Pediatrics suggests there is a way to do it safely.
Joining us now to explain the study’s findings is WORLD’s medical correspondent Dr. Charles Horton. Good morning!
CHARLES HORTON, GUEST: Good morning! Good to be back.
REICHARD: Start by telling us what these researchers were looking at, in terms of data.
HORTON: First off, this was a big study—not just in findings but in size. It was a collaboration between Duke and the University of North Carolina, funded by the NIH, and it looked at eleven school districts with close to 100,000 students total across nine weeks.
The background is that in North Carolina, Governor Roy Cooper gave school districts the choice between remote learning or a hybrid model, partially remote and partially in person. For schools that reopened, Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill created guidelines that emphasized masks, distancing, and hygiene. It’s worth mentioning that the classrooms were also less full, because many districts used a two-day week where 50 percent of the students were present Monday and Tuesday, 50 percent were present Thursday and Friday, and Wednesday was for cleaning — and also because parents in those districts still had the choice of remote learning if they preferred it.
REICHARD: OK so that’s the data the researchers looked at. What did they find?
HORTON: In a nutshell, they found that if everyone works together, schools can reopen. The bad news is that there were around 800 cases of Covid during that time, but the good news is that only 32 of those folks were considered to have caught it at school. And none of those 32 were teachers.
They did basically study the best-case scenario, where people were diligent about masks and distancing, and where people who’d had an exposure quarantined—they actually quarantined about 3,000 people during those nine weeks.
Each of the three case clusters that did occur happened in contexts where it wasn’t really possible to wear masks reliably. One was a pre-kindergarten, and two involved special needs students. I do think it’s noteworthy that taking masks out of the picture did bring case clusters back, so as much of a pain as it is, I think it’s pretty clear that they help.
Those case clusters involved 15 people. That means if we take those away and you have 17 people catching Covid from the schools, versus well over 700 catching it somewhere else.
Interestingly, there were two clusters among public school students who were only attending school virtually—which means that the kids in question had to have caught it from each other outside school.
REICHARD: I understand the CDC also recently released similar findings, right?
HORTON: Yes, on Tuesday they published a study of 17 K-through-12 schools in Wisconsin. Both the methods—masks, distancing, and vigilance—and the results backed up what the North Carolina study found. There were 191 cases within the participating schools during the study period, which was 13 weeks, but only seven people were found to have caught it in school. And again this time, none of those were teachers—all seven were students.
REICHARD: We’ve known for a while now that children don’t seem to be as affected by COVID-19. What does the latest research tell us about their susceptibility to it and their ability to spread it?
HORTON: Right, since the vast majority of people getting seriously ill from Covid are adults—and usually older adults—the main question with children has been how contagious they are or aren’t. In other words, having a group of healthy children get Covid isn’t likely to cause any serious harm for them. So the reason for this focus on the mechanics of how they transmit the virus to one another is concern about spreading the virus to more susceptible people—say a child whose parents aren’t in good health, or who lives with his grandparents.
And what this study seems to say about that is that children can catch Covid, and they can give it to each other—or they can’t, depending on how a school handles things. So if the schools act responsibly, they can return to classes while exposing the children to a level of risk that appears much lower than what they’re accepting outside school.
REICHARD: Why is that?
HORTON: It goes back to how many cases we saw from community transmission, versus how many from school—remember those two clusters among the students who only did virtual classes.
I’m really glad to see this study, because it seems like we’ve often encountered this cultural dichotomy between “lock everything down and teach students via Zoom,” on the one hand—which is hard for the children, the parents, and the teachers—and on the other hand going back to seating students close together, no masks, etc. Neither of those has worked well, but instead of debating which is even worse, this study points to a better way: We can bring the students back into the classroom, thoughtfully.
REICHARD: Dr. Charles Horton is a physician and WORLD’s medical correspondent. Thanks so much for joining us today!
HORTON: Always a pleasure!