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What national data dashboard tells us about how safe it is to send kids back to schools

A classroom sits ready for students at Freedom Preparatory Academy as teachers begin to prepare to restart school after it was closed in March due to COVID-19 on Aug. 13, 2020 in Provo, Utah. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

There’s a big question on every parent’s mind: Is it safe to send my kid back to school? Even if schools conduct all the proper protocols, have protective equipment for everybody, and space for social isolation, we still have to wonder how safe children will be from COVID-19 if they return to the classroom.

Emily Oster is an economics professor at Brown University, who helped to create a national coronavirus response dashboard for schools.

“What we’re trying to do with this tracker is we’re trying to actually start by asking schools how many kids they have enrolled, what kind of opening plan they have, and what kind of mitigation [they’re] doing,” Oster told Seattle’s Morning News. “Because I think you started with a good point, which is, how can we know how safe schools are when you’re doing them as safely as possible? And then we’ve been collecting that data and we’ve been following up and asking schools how many COVID cases they have.”

The hope is to keep tracking this data over time in order to get a sense of how risky it really is to return to school and try to put some real numbers on the kinds of things that people are fearing.

Based on what the researchers have seen so far, the case rates are low at many schools, especially those following a number of different safety measures.

“We’re generally seeing pretty low rates, even though many of our schools, or at least some of our schools, are not doing all of the things that you would hope for, and some of them are in pretty high prevalence areas,” she said. “But in the schools that are doing more distancing and masking, the rates are really low.”

Oster says less than one in 1,000 kids over a two week period had an infection in most schools. So in a school of 1,200 kids, you’d expect one or two cases every two weeks.

Does she think it’s safe to reopen schools then, knowing that?

“I think that it’s complicated,” Oster said. “I think a lot of district public schools don’t have the kind of resources to do the kind of mitigation that we would like. But I do think people have probably been too cautious about opening, given what we’re seeing in schools.”

A properly mitigated school, Oster explained, including everyone wearing masks, both staff and students, some kind of symptom screening to prevent people from coming to school when they’re sick, and at least some kind of distancing.

“I think the other thing that’s showing up in the data as predictive of low case rates is limiting the group sizes,” she added. “… We ask schools if they allow groups of more than 25, and limiting group sizes seems to matter. Almost no school is doing any testing, even the private schools.”

The lack of testing is due to the high expense and because widespread testing is not very available, Oster said.

How do teachers feel about returning to schools where there may be asymptomatic, infectious kids?

“I think teachers are very anxious about this, but one of the things that I think we’re starting to see in the data that I think is really important to emphasize is, you know, we do collect information on staff infection rates,” Oster said. “They are higher than students, although they’re still quite low, maybe a quarter of a percent.”

“But what we’re seeing is that there are a number of school districts where the staff is in person and the students are not,” she continued. “And those districts are seeing infections that look very similar to places where the students are in person. … I think it’s consistent with what other people have noted that a lot of the risk to staff are interactions with other staff. And so we want to be a little bit careful.”

There’s a false sense of security afforded by the assumption that if teachers and staff aren’t interacting with students, then it’s safe, but Oster says that hasn’t proven true as the other adults are bigger risks.

View the national COVID-19 school response data dashboard online here.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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