Teachers, not students, drove coronavirus spread in Georgia schools, study finds

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Wearing masks and maintaining social distance during such activities as student lunch and faculty meetings are the main factors in keeping schools free of coronavirus infections, says a new study of a school district in Georgia conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published on Monday afternoon.

And it is when teachers, not students, neglect to follow those measures that the coronavirus most rapidly spreads. “Initial infections among educators played a substantial role,” the CDC researchers wrote. To stop such spread, the researchers recommended “consistent, correct mask use and physical distancing wherever possible.”

The new findings appear to fly in the face of assertions made by White House chief of staff Ron Klain and other senior administration officials that schools cannot open without the billions allotted to them through the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan proposed by President Biden. Much of that funding would go toward sophisticated school infrastructure upgrades. While such upgrades are clearly needed, with many schools across the nation in disrepair, there is no clear evidence that they are necessary to get children learning in person again.

An earlier study of schools in Wisconsin that had opened for in-person instruction similarly found that face masks were key to preventing coronavirus infections.

Ron Klain speaks at a microphone
White House chief of staff Ron Klain. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Both the Wisconsin and Georgia studies have obvious limitations. For one, neither was conducted in the kind of dense urban environment where space constraints present additional challenges. Yet both school districts are located in communities that experienced significant viral spread at the time the studies were conducted. In both instances, simple measures appeared to be enough to keep the coronavirus out of the schoolhouse.

The new study comes as school reopenings emerge as perhaps Biden’s most challenging political issue. Parents are increasingly vocal about seeing students return to the classroom, as are public health researchers. Influential teachers’ unions, however, remain resistant to ending what has been widely described as a disastrous nationwide experiment in remote learning.

Union leaders in Los Angeles, for example, have reportedly balked at returning to in-person instruction until community spread is contained in each of the district’s ZIP codes. But with 165 ZIP codes in the Los Angeles Unified School District — the nation’s second largest — that is a daunting goal. More to the point, it may not be necessary, given the remarkably consistent science on school reopenings.

Conducted throughout December and January — as case counts were increasing across the country, including in Georgia — the CDC study published on Monday examined outbreaks in eight elementary schools in the exurbs north and east of Atlanta. Some 2,300 children attended those schools; 700 teachers and staff members worked there.

There were a total of nine outbreaks (defined as three cases or more) in six of those schools, infecting 13 teachers and 32 students. An additional 18 household infections resulted from those nine school-based outbreaks.

The study found that a lack of adherence to basic precautionary measures by adults, not children, was in good part responsible for the viral spread. “Educators were central to in-school transmission networks,” the researchers concluded. That seems to fly in the face of the argument made by some opponents of reopening that schools would be inherently unsafe because children cannot be counted on to follow proper precautionary measures.

Several people, many without masks, hold signs reading
Protesters in Racine, Wis., on Jan. 23, calling for in-person learning to resume. (Mark Hertzberg/ZUMA Wire)

Such measures, it appears, are sometimes more difficult for adults to follow. Four of the nine outbreaks began with a teacher. Fifteen of the cases resulted from two outbreaks in which a teacher transmitted the coronavirus to another teacher “during in-person meetings or lunches,” the researchers wrote, “which was followed by educator-to-student transmission in the classroom.”

When students spread the virus, it was because they did not wear masks. Lunch proved a particular challenge, with students' eating in classrooms appearing to facilitate transmission. Those findings are consistent with research into how restaurants and bars are especially potent sites of transmission, as it is plainly impossible to eat or drink through a mask.

In districts where teachers have been reluctant to return to schools, the unions that represent them have insisted they must be vaccinated before coming back into the classroom. But both CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading adviser to the Biden administration, have said vaccination should not be a hard-and-fast condition. The new study makes the same point.

“Although not required for reopening schools, COVID-19 vaccination should be considered as an additional mitigation measure to be added when available,” the CDC researchers wrote.

Cover thumbnail photo: Getty Images


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