Study finds that in much of the United States, the virtual school has not reduced rates of COVID-19 cases in surrounding communities

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As of March 2020, parents, educators and politicians have questioned whether to send children to school in person during the COVID-19 pandemic. New research suggests that in most regions except the South, opening schools for in-person learning was not associated with increased rates of COVID-19 cases in the community. The results of the national study, published in Natural medicine, included 895 school districts across the United States.

“The results suggest that it is possible for schools to operate safely and in person without increasing case rates in the community,” says Richard Nelson, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Utah Health and co-lead author with Westyn Branch-Elliman, MD, of the VA Boston Healthcare System. “But the flip side is also true. In some areas, the in-person school seemed to be a source of community spread. “

The researchers analyzed the data collected over the 12 weeks from July to September 2020 by region and categorized it as Northeast, Midwest, South, and Mountain West. The West Pacific was not included because almost all of the public schools were virtual. The study found that:

  • In each region analyzed, cases of COVID-19 increased in the weeks following the start of the school year.
  • The South was the only region with higher case rates in counties with in-person or hybrid school compared to counties with e-learning, after controlling for other contributing factors.
  • In all other regions, community case rates in the post-school period were similar, whether the school was virtual, hybrid, or in-person.

“We know cases increased dramatically last fall across the country,” Nelson said. “In some parts of the country, school mode has contributed to these rising rates, while in others it has not. “

In the south, which included 191 counties from Delaware to Texas, the traditional in-person school was associated with an increase in community cases of COVID-19 starting two weeks after the school reopened. The increase mainly concerned people aged 0 to 9 years or 20 years and over. Data were not available for stratification that would allow scientists to analyze the impacts on different school age groups (eg, elementary, middle and secondary).

Researchers monitored local policies, including closures of workplaces and public transportation, cancellation of public events, COVID testing and contact tracing policies, and mask requirements.

However, because people follow policies imperfectly, another important datum the researchers considered was community mobility. This is data collected from Google’s location history that reflects the number of people actually moving in the community in four categories: residences, workplaces, grocery store / drugstore, and retail / recreation locations. .

In communities where people move more around, there is more social interaction outside of school and therefore more possibilities for the infection to spread, Nelson says. “The traditional school in an area where there is a lot of movement seems different from the traditional school where there is not a lot of movement in the community, in terms of case rates,” says Nelson. “For this reason, it is important to take into account mobility at the community level when assessing the impact schools have had on cases. “

Taken together, the data suggests that the impact of traditional and hybrid schooling on community spread varied across the country, Nelson says. Further investigation of the factors that may have contributed to community spread in the South could help determine the most effective mitigation measures for the school itself.

Branch-Elliman explains that regional differences in mitigation strategies at the community and school level, or other factors such as environmental conditions, may have played a role. “It’s important to understand that schools are not islands,” says Branch-Elliman. “They exist as part of a larger community network.”

At the time of study data collection, vaccinations were not available and the Delta variant had not yet emerged in the United States. Further research will also need to investigate how these factors affect the spread of COVID-19.


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More information:
Zeynep Ertem et al, The impact of the school opening model on the community incidence and mortality of SARS-CoV-2, Natural medicine (2021). DOI: 10.1038 / s41591-021-01563-8
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Utah University of Health Sciences

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Study finds that across much of the United States, the virtual school has not reduced rates of COVID-19 cases in surrounding communities (2021, November 3)
retrieved on November 3, 2021
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