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Are Schools Super Spreaders for the COVID-19 Virus?

As schools nationwide reopen for in-person education, ensuring student and staff safety remains a priority. But how safe really is school reopening?

While no federal data has been released at this writing on the safety of reopening schools, the topic has been a source of hot debate for President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Presidential election results are pending at this report.

Trump has been very vocal on reopening schools to benefit students and their families, while Biden stressed that first schools need more resources such as more personal protection equipment and fast-response COVID-19 testing. Regardless of the candidates’ platforms, some students — especially students with special needs and those falling behind in distance learning — need schools to reopen.

Despite a lack in the federal government tracking this information, several other outlets are enacting their own tracking methods. For instance, technology company Burbio is tracking school district reopening nationwide, indicating that over 30 million students, or approximately 55 percent of all nationwide, are currently back in school.

States in the Midwest as well as Florida appear to mostly be open for in-person learning, according to Burbio’s K-12 School Opening Tracker. Alabama and Mississippi are also almost fully open, along with Arkansas.

Meanwhile, Education Week is reporting on where school buildings are open or closed on a state-by-state basis. It found that California, Delaware, Hawaii, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, and West Virginia remain partially closed, in accordance with governmental or health orders. Meanwhile, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, and Texas have orders to reopen schools.

With schools starting the reopening process, Emily Oster, an economics professor at Brown University, wanted to better understand the risk of COVID-19 in schools. She said she was curious about how it was evolving and was looking for a way to track it.

She questioned how many COVID-19 cases districts had within a two-week span, how the virus is spreading in schools, and how it affects grade levels as well as staff differently. In conjunction with the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), Oster released the COVID-19 School Response Dashboard to help answer some of these questions.

The database is created on the premise of districts voluntarily adding in their own data. Currently, 5,695 out of a total of nearly 17,000 school districts nationwide are reporting.

Oster explained how the dashboard works during a recent webinar hosted by AASA and the National Association of Pupil Transportation. It breaks down information on overall case rates, daily case rates, and the percentage of confirmed student and school staff cases. At this report, a two-week span from Oct. 12 – Oct. 25 found that 0.09 percent of students out of 4,987 responding districts tested positive. Meanwhile, out of 5,677 respondents during that same time period, 20 percent of staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

She added that filters can be added in to exclude high schools, for example, as these students tend to be at higher risk of contracting the virus. She added one could also filter by learning model, such as in-person, hybrid or virtual. Oster added that one finding that stands out is communities with a high rate of COVID-19 infections are showing higher rates in staff and students in schools.

The dashboard also collects mitigation strategies, with over 90 percent of districts responding that they mandate masks for both staff and students and require an at-home daily health screening.

Noelle Ellerson, executive director of the AASA, said the organization partnered with Oster to help superintendents obtain real-time data on schools reopening. She noted that the dashboard is being used to show superintendents that reopening is possible with mitigation strategies and federal funding. The dashboard’s goal, “is to provide educational leaders and policymakers with information on how schools are reopening and what factors contribute to a safe reopening,” as stated on the website.

Ellerson explained that schools won’t be able to fully open until communities rein in their COVID-19 numbers. Oster echoed that statement and said changes need to be made in people’s regular lives so the infection rates can go down and children can return to school. She also encouraged school districts to sign up for the dashboard and report their numbers.

Tim Ammon, a co-founder of the Decision Support Group as well as a project manager for the Student Transportation Aligned for Return To School task force, also sat in as a panelist on the webinar. He discussed how the data can be used from an operational standpoint for transportation operations. He noted that because transportation is not the policymaker but instead the implementer and enactor, understanding how to use the data is important.

He added that the data could potentially help with the fear school bus drivers could be feeling about transporting groups of students again. But he noted that fear could also depend on the community spread rates.

“Do we have options or do we have an option?” Ammon questioned, in reference to transportation’s role.

Getting Transportation More Involved

Ellerson said transportation and superintendents need to work together, and transportation officials need to be able to inform the administration of innovation and leadership ideas. She said at least bringing ideas up to the superintendent will give them an opportunity to dismiss it, as opposed to transportation departments holding onto the information.

Because of all factors that contribute to the decision to reopening schools, it’s not an easy answer. Oster added that she’s seeing hybrid education take a toll on teachers who have to switch back and forth between in-person and virtual teaching. Ellerson noted no school is the same and even if schools are in the same community, they could lack different rescores, including internet access.


Related: (STN Podcast E34) A Crazy Year for School Busing: COVID-19 Re-closes Schools & Wildfires Rage
Related: As California Schools Reopen, State Association Issues Transportation Guidance
Related: New York State Allows School Districts to Reopen for In-Person Learning
Related: CDC Releases Considerations for COVID-19 Testing of Students in Schools
Related: CDC Releases Guidance on Best Practices for Reopening Schools


Ammon said hybrid learning models are resulting in the imperfect grouping of students, which could make establishing routes for multifamily-homes complicated. They also set a precedent for complicated routing, as more hybrid scenarios are discussed going forward. He added that the more a district gets into learning scenarios from a logistical standpoint, the more likely something can go wrong.

Ammon said it’s problematic to get something wrong in the transportation industry because of the population being transported. He explained that the transition between educational models is going to get harder, and student transporters are going to be challenged.

Ammon shared he would like to see transportation-related questions be added to the dashboard. One example he provided would be, “How many districts had to shut down routes due to positive COVID-19 cases?”

He explained that over the next couple of weeks, more school districts are transitioning to in-person education, so having updated data would be beneficial for transportation operations.

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