America’s largest school district, New York City, brought some 300,000 students back for in-person learning on Tuesday, even as Covid-19 rates in the city began to tick up. Meanwhile, schools in Miami announced a return to fully in-person learning this month, after a disastrous rollout of online education earlier in the fall. Then there are schools from Kentucky to New Jersey that have switched from in-person to remote learning in recent weeks due to Covid-19 cases.
Like everything about the response to the coronavirus in America, school reopenings have been a patchwork, with states and districts each following their own guidelines — some informed by public health guidance, some less so. As millions of Americans try to make decisions about their children’s education, or their own work as teachers or school staff, they face a terrifying lack of information: There’s no nationwide data on the number of Covid-19 cases in K-12 schools.
Still, we are starting to get a picture — or perhaps a rough sketch — of what education looks like in this time — helped along largely by data collection efforts by the New York Times and the Covid-19 School Response Dashboard.
We are beginning to have a sense of how common Covid-19 is in schools that have reopened, and what schools are doing to reduce the spread of the virus. We know that rates among staff are markedly higher than those among students — not a surprise given previous evidence that adults are more likely to contract the virus, but significant nonetheless. And we know that, at least for now, hybrid learning models employed in many districts to make schools safer have not completely eliminated the risk.
With schools having just started in some places — and concerning signs of a new surge as summer moves to fall — the coming weeks may bring answers to some of the biggest questions about Covid-19 and schools.
One key indicator will be whether the overall rate of cases in schools increases from week to week, Emily Oster, an economics professor at Brown University who co-created the dashboard, told Vox: “If they’re 0.75 percent this week, are they 3 percent next week, and 6 percent the week after that? That would be very worrisome.”
And while we don’t yet have much of a longitudinal view, the 10 facts below offer a guide to what we know so far — and what we need to find out.
Almost half of American schools planned to start the year fully in-person
Part of the difficulty in fully understanding Covid-19 risk in schools is that approaches to pandemic education are incredibly varied. While some states, like California, have issued guidelines barring districts from opening if transmission is too high — and others, like Florida, have pressured schools to open regardless of transmission — decisions have often been left up to individual districts themselves. Efforts to map reopening around the country end up looking like patchwork quilts.
Still, we have some nationwide data about reopening plans at the beginning of the school year. In a nationally representative survey of 477 districts conducted in late August by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), 49 percent planned to open fully in-person. Meanwhile, 26 percent planned to be fully remote, and 12 percent planned to open on a hybrid model, with students in-person on some days and remote on others. And 85 percent of districts planned to offer some fully remote option for families, even if they also offered in-person instruction.
Those serving a high percentage of students in poverty are more likely to be fully remote
Around the country, district reopening plans vary widely based on population density, the CRPE survey found. Rural districts were most likely to plan a fully in-person start, with 65 percent indicating such a plan compared with 24 percent of suburban districts and 9 percent of urban ones. And nearly four out of five urban districts planned to start the year fully remote.
Districts with a high percentage of students living in poverty were also more likely than others to plan for a remote start. Just 24 percent of districts with the lowest rate of poverty in the CRPE survey planned to start remotely, compared with 41 percent of the highest-poverty districts.
In some cases, this may have to do with virus risk, as communities with high levels of poverty have also been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. It’s also possible that the expense of hybrid learning, which requires complex scheduling and potentially more staff, may be prohibitive for high-poverty districts — as the CRPE report notes, “high-poverty districts were much less likely to plan for logistically complex and likely more expensive hybrid learning.”
The divide between high- and low-poverty districts is concerning, the report notes, because students in poverty face disproportionate barriers to successful remote learning, from a lack of adequate space at home for schoolwork to parents who need to work outside the home and can’t supervise their children’s schooling. Schools around the country are going above and beyond to help students in poverty with remote learning, but so far, many lack the help they need from states and the federal government.
“It’s a absolute tragedy that our communities that are getting hit most by the pandemic are then getting hit once again by the effects of schools being closed,” Brandon Guthrie, a professor of global health and epidemiology at the University of Washington, told Vox.
Schools and districts are changing their plans constantly
The CRPE report paints a picture of what districts were planning at the beginning of the school year. But schools are changing their plans constantly in the face of changing viral conditions and, sometimes, political pressures.
For example, when EdWeek surveyed districts in July, about 13 percent planned for all-remote learning. When the publication conducted the survey again at the end of August, that figure jumped to around 23 percent.
But some districts shifted in the opposite direction — 9 percent told EdWeek in July that they would be fully in-person, while 13 percent said so by the end of August.
Sometimes, these changes are a response to rising or falling case counts in the community. A school district in Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania, for example, decided to reopen for full in-person learning after planning for a hybrid model for some students, because cases in the county declined, according to EdWeek. Other districts, such as one in State College, Pennsylvania, have shifted to a fully remote schedule as case counts in the area increase.
In other cases, however, districts have been forced to change plans after orders from the state. The Miami-Dade County public schools, for example, had planned to reopen for in-person learning in mid-October. But under pressure from the state, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has threatened to withhold funding if schools do not reopen, it moved up this date to October 5.
For students who are in school, one analysis found a 0.071 percent infection rate
For districts doing at least some in-person learning, the big question is how likely students and teachers are to contract Covid-19. And if you read the news around this question, you’re likely bombarded with numbers of cases: one case at one school, six cases at another, and cases in 100 different New York City schools before in-person classes even started.
But without knowing how many students and staff, total, are in the buildings reporting cases, it’s impossible to know how prevalent the virus really is in schools. While even one case of a potentially serious illness is important and requires a response, it’s also true that one case out of 10 students probably requires a different response than one out of 100,000.
When reports of outbreaks come out, “that’s the numerator; we don’t actually know what is the denominator,” Marilyn Tseng, an epidemiologist at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, told Vox.
Part of the goal of the Covid-19 dashboard has been to figure out those denominators in order to draw conclusions about prevalence and risk. Oster and her team collected data from public and private schools, as well as districts — so far, they have 703 schools on board, with a total of 126,785 students and 47,489 staff going to buildings in person.
This group of schools is not a nationally representative sample —schools and districts have to opt in, and those who choose to share their data are not a perfect sampling of schools in America. However, by enrolling whole districts in the project, the team hopes to be able to draw at least some large-scale conclusions. And by allowing schools to report data anonymously, they hope to encourage schools to share their numbers even if those numbers are high.
Despite its limitations, the Covid dashboard made a splash when it was released last week, in part because it provided something available nowhere else: an estimate of the Covid-19 infection rate in American schools. Among schools participating in the project, about 0.071 percent of students had a confirmed infection in the period between August 31 and September 13. At that rate, a school of 1,350 students could expect to see about one student case in a two-week period, Oster wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed.
Those are just the confirmed cases — if you add in suspected cases of the virus, the rate rises to 0.51 percent.
Those rates aren’t particularly high, especially given rates of Covid-19 in some communities. Still, they clearly show that kids are bringing the virus into schools, and that schools can expect cases to tick up. Ultimately, what you think of a 0.071 percent rate of confirmed infection may depend on how you weigh the benefits of in-person school against the risk of a child contracting the coronavirus. As Oster put it, “all these kinds of numbers are in the eyes of the beholder.”
Teachers and staff were infected at a rate of 0.19 percent, more than twice the rate of students
Whatever you think about the rate of student infection, one thing is clear: The rate for teachers and staff is higher. In the Covid dashboard sample, 0.19 percent of teachers and other adults in schools had a confirmed infection between the end of August and mid-September. When you add in suspected cases, the rate rises to 0.61 percent.
The difference between staff and student infection rates adds to an existing body of evidence suggesting that opening schools poses a greater risk to adults than to children. From data in the US and abroad, “we know that if you have limited control measures in place, and have transmission going on in the school, that it is likely that teachers would become infected,” Guthrie said.
A study of schools open in the UK this summer, for example, found 70 cases among students (out of about 843,430 total students) and 128 among staff (out of about 519,590 total staff members). The majority of cases linked to in-school outbreaks, as opposed to out-of-school transmission, appeared in staff as well.
The dashboard data underscores the fact that adults in schools appear to contract Covid-19 at a higher rate than children — something especially concerning since they are also more likely to become seriously ill from the virus.
Many schools have closed temporarily because of positive cases
One thing that the dashboard makes clear is that even if the infection rate is relatively low, cases do happen, and schools and districts have to adjust to this reality.
For example, Woodcliff Lake Middle School in New Jersey closed for 14 days after a staff member tested positive on September 10, according to NJ.com. And in Cherokee County, Georgia, schools opened for full in-person instruction on August 3 — but by the end of the week, several schools had to close and nearly 1,200 students and staff were in quarantine, according to the New York Times.
Quarantines and temporary closures are likely to be routine during the pandemic, but they pose numerous problems for schools. In Lumpkin County, Georgia, quarantined students cannot simply switch to remote learning, because remote and in-person learning are on different tracks, according to the Times. And in Greater Clark County, Indiana, schools have struggled to stay open due to the number of staff in quarantine, which at one point reached 59.
It’s not clear how schools will continue to handle these ongoing challenges, especially with overstretched state and local budgets making extra staffing difficult. But one thing better data could provide is the ability to plan. One function of the Covid dashboard, Oster says, is to help school officials know what to expect if and when they open in person. Over time, the data could help superintendents answer the question, “When I reopen, what should I expect is the number of kids that are going to get sick,” Oster says — and plan accordingly.
Hybrid models aren’t necessarily better
The schools and districts that have generally chosen hybrid models — where students are in-person for some part of the week and remote for the rest — have done so under the theory that these are safer. Using a hybrid schedule, a school can reduce the number of students in the building at any one time and allow for better social distancing.
Indeed, the Covid dashboard showed that as of September 22, schools with hybrid models had lower student infection rates than schools that were fully in-person, with 24 cases per 100,000 students in fully in-person school, compared with 14 cases per 100,000 in hybrid schools.
However, infection rates among staff were actually higher at hybrid schools — 52 cases per 100,000, compared with 21 cases per 100,000 for fully in-person schools.
There are a number of possible reasons for the discrepancy — for one thing, Oster notes, schools may be more likely to use a hybrid model in places where case numbers are already high, leading to more cases within schools.
But hybrid models may also have their own risks. “You do really need to think about what is happening while kids are not in the classroom,” Guthrie said. Those kids are not all isolated at home with their families. Instead, younger children may be in child care centers or with babysitters, while older kids may be hanging out with friends. And all of those exposures have to be factored in to the risks of any model.
And while there haven’t been any outbreaks yet that can be conclusively tied to hybrid learning, “there are reasons to raise it as a concern,” Guthrie said.
Most schools are taking precautions — but public schools are taking fewer than private ones
The Covid dashboard also tracks the mitigation strategies schools are using in an effort to reduce viral spread. The most common were at-home symptom screenings, with 96 percent of schools reporting use of this method, and masks, with 96 percent of schools requiring them for students and 95 percent requiring them for staff. Next up was increased ventilation, at 85 percent.
The prevalence of masks is encouraging news since there’s increasing evidence that wearing a face covering can help stop the spread of the virus. “The more that we learn about aerosol transmission, I think the more support there is for universal masking,” Guthrie said.
Other interventions, however, are less common. Only 62 percent of schools reported requiring students to keep 6 feet apart, a strategy supported by experts throughout the pandemic as a way to reduce risk. And just 5 percent of schools reported testing staff before the first day of school.
As of now, we don’t yet know which strategies are the most effective for stopping transmission within schools. What is clear, however, is that private schools have been able to put in place more strategies than public schools. As of September 22, for example, 92 percent of private schools in the dashboard sample were reporting increased ventilation, compared with just 52 percent of public schools. And 81 percent of private schools reported having some or all classes outdoors, compared with 32 percent of public schools.
That disparity may reflect the fact that many private schools have resources that public schools lack, as Anya Kamenetz and Daniel Wood note at NPR, especially amid a time of state and local budget cuts. And they’re concerning because they threaten to further entrench the inequalities that have been evident throughout the pandemic, since private schools tend to serve a whiter and wealthier student body than public ones.
Though the sample sizes are small for now, private schools in the dashboard sample are seeing much lower infection rates than their public counterparts, Oster said. “My guess is even as we grow the sample that will continue to be true.”
It’s not clear yet how much schools are driving overall rates of Covid-19 in communities
One of the biggest questions around reopening schools is how much the decision impacts community spread of Covid-19 — for example, there’s been concern that allowing students back in person could lead to a spike affecting even those without school-age kids, including potentially vulnerable populations like those over 65.
So far, evidence from other countries suggests this isn’t a huge concern in places where community transmission rates are already very low, Guthrie said. Countries like Germany, for example, were able to reopen schools without a large spike in cases, though it remains to be seen what will happen now that many parts of Europe are experiencing a second wave of infections.
In the US, schools have reopened in many places with relatively high levels of transmission, such as Georgia, which welcomed students back to school even as case counts rose. While such openings have already led to quarantines, it’s not yet entirely clear what they’ve meant for overall rates of the virus — or whether reopenings in less hard-hit areas have led to resurgences.
Some data, however, is encouraging. In Florida, where many schools reopened amid or on the heels of a summer surge in cases, a recent USA Today analysis showed that case counts among children 5 to 17 actually declined through late September, even though schools opened in August. And spikes in individual counties appeared to be driven by colleges, not K-12 schools.
However, the analysis also found that after schools reopened, the rate of decline in cases — which peaked in July — began to slow. That could mean that cases are about to rebound due to school reopenings, but it’s just not showing up in the data yet.
“It’s one of those things where it’s not a problem until there is a problem,” Katherine Auger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, told USA Today.
We need more data
The example of Florida is a reminder that as the US enters the seventh month of the pandemic, there’s still much we don’t know about Covid-19 and schools. Indeed, one thing nearly all experts agree on is the need for more data to draw real conclusions on the risks to students, staff, and the broader community.
“If there were some more standardized effort across jurisdictions, where we could get the true denominator data, it would help people make better decisions,” Tseng said. “But we don’t have that.”
And over the next several months, as fall turns to winter and districts around the country continue trying to educate students in the face of the pandemic, “for better or for worse, we’re going to have a lot to learn,” Guthrie said.
Help keep Vox free for all
Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.