Study of Rural Schools Suggests Class Can Continue Even Where Coronavirus Infection Rates Are High | Education News

By requiring masks and grouping students into small cohorts, rural schools may be able to maintain a low risk of coronavirus transmission – even when community infection rates are high, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests.

The report, published Tuesday, is the first to look exclusively at rural schools, and, though limited in scope, it offers some evidence that in certain instances in-person school is possible with community transmission rates as high as 40{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}.

“These findings suggest that, with proper mitigation strategies, K-12 schools might be capable of opening for in-person learning with minimal in-school transmission of SARS-CoV-2,” the researchers concluded, using the full name for the coronavirus.

The researchers looked at compliance with the mandatory mask policy and the impact of grouping students into small cohorts to minimize the risk of transmission among nearly 5,000 students and 650 staff in 17 rural schools in Wood County, Wisconsin, where more than 85{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of students were learning in person. They compared school-attributable COVID-19 rates with rates in the surrounding community, concluding that in-person school did not drive transmission of the coronavirus.

Among the 191 cases identified in students and staff members, 1 in 20 cases among students was linked to in-school transmission, and no infections among staff members were found to have been acquired at school. Only seven cases were associated with in-school transmission, all in students.

Notably, widespread community transmission was observed during the August 2020 to November 2020 study period, with 7{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} to 40{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of COVID-19 tests having positive results. Despite the high rates of community transmission, the incidence of COVID-19 in schools open for in-person instruction was 37{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} lower than that in the surrounding community.

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The findings counter conclusions from other studies that say reopening school for in-person learning doesn’t increase positivity rates, but only if the community’s infections rates are low to begin with – a monster condition given that infection rates and hospitalization rates are spiking around the country and that many school districts lack the necessary resources to provide masks to staff and students, establish sanitization stations, reconfigure classrooms for social distancing and establish rigorous testing and contact tracing systems.

Nearly 10 months after schools across the country shuttered amid the coronavirus pandemic, researchers are finally amassing enough data to draw more informed conclusions about whether and how the virus spreads in schools, whether schools are significant drivers of infection rates and what conditions may allow for schools to safely and successfully reopen for in-person learning.

That data has been difficult to come by due to a lack of federal guidance for how states, counties and school districts track COVID-19 cases. That has led to a patchwork of reporting requirements – some of which are made public, others not – that have stymied efforts to draw any conclusions to help school officials to make complicated and contentious decisions about reopening and closing schools.

A series of recent analyses suggested that as long as infection rates are under control, in-person school – whether it’s through a hybrid model or fully in-person – does not contribute to community spread. This new data from the CDC is among the earliest to suggest that in some cases, even when community transmission is high, in-person school might not contribute to or mirror that. It comes at a time when the Biden administration is charging hard to reopen the majority of K-8 schools.

To be sure, the results are not necessarily applicable to the rest of the country. For example, rural schools differ in significant ways from those in more densely populated areas, and physical distancing might be easier in rural schools than in suburban or urban schools – to name just one important caveat.

In addition, the racial and ethnic makeup of this specific rural population was predominantly white, and, therefore, the results might not be generalizable to other rural or nonrural school districts – especially those that serve lots of Black and Latino students, whose families have been hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic.

The schools that participated in the study employed a number of infection mitigation measures, and all schools were under district and statewide mask mandates. Students and staff were given up to five two- to three-layer cloth masks, which they were asked to wear when within 6 feet of another person outdoors and at all times indoors.

In addition, the schools established classroom cohorts of 11 to 20 students in each grade level to avoid mixing with too many other students. All classes and lunch periods were held indoors, and schools tried to seat students near the same person within their cohort.

The school did not conduct coronavirus screening, but if a student was experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, the student and their siblings were excluded from school.

“These findings suggest that attending school where recommended mitigation strategies are implemented might not place children in a higher risk environment than exists in the community,” the researchers concluded. “Having children in a monitored school setting might increase adherence to mask compliance, and cohorting can help minimize exposures for children and adults.”

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