A report released Wednesday shows reopening schools without taking preventative measures may lead to a significant increase of COVID-19 in the population.
The Washington State Department of Health (DOH), Public Health – Seattle & King County and Institute for Disease Modeling (IDM) released the report.
Using data from King County, IDM used their agent-based model, Covasim, to simulate different scenarios and strategies for reopening schools alongside varying levels of community activity and mobility outside schools. Simulating the first three months of school term (Sept. 1 to Dec. 1), the report found King County schools may be able to reopen without sustained epidemic growth, but only with several countermeasures in place and if community-wide COVID-19 transmission is low, according to a news release from the state Department of Health. Without any countermeasures, the number of new COVID-19 cases in the county could double over the three-month period.
“Reopening schools cannot be considered in isolation – what happens outside of schools is as important as what happens inside of schools,” said Lacy Fehrenbach, DOH’s deputy secretary of health for the COVID-19 response. “The most important step we can take to reopen schools this fall is to come together to reduce spread of the virus in our communities and statewide.”
Grouping students by age, physical distancing, wearing masks and safe hygiene may be able to reduce the impact of school reopenings on transmission, but how much of an impact these measures have will depend on the level of COVID-19 transmission outside of schools, according to the news release. Even with countermeasures, students and staff would need to be screened for symptoms daily and both work and community mobility would need to stay below a certain threshold.
“Every part of our society is connected when it comes to COVID-19,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County. “How well we control transmission in workplaces, businesses, recreation, families and social networks are related and all impact whether we can safely reopen schools.”
“This analysis demonstrates the importance of both policymakers and individuals across society working together and doing their part to reduce COVID-19 transmission – wearing masks, practicing physical distancing and continuing to let science guide policy,” said Dr. Jamie Cohen, research scientist at IDM and lead author on the report. “This is the only way we will be able to safely reopen schools in the fall.”
At a minimum, mask usage, physical distancing, safe hygiene and classroom cohorting are necessary to reopen schools. Future analysis will investigate additional strategies, such as closing schools in reaction to cases or alternative scheduling to reduce in-school contacts.
The Washington Education Association issued a response Wednesday to the new report.
“WEA appreciates the information from our health experts regarding the safe operation of schools,” said WEA President Larry Delaney in a statement. “Their recognition that our schools must be held to the same health and safety standards as other businesses, organizations, and activities is an important consideration in the discussion regarding what happens this fall.
“As educators, we love our jobs and our students. We would very much prefer going back to school buildings this fall. However, with cases on the rise, and hitting new peaks in our state, we have serious concerns about the health and safety risks posed to students, educators, families and our communities.
“We know parents want the same thing – for their children to be in school at school. We encourage all Washingtonians to help us all get back by practicing social distancing, wearing facial coverings, and helping reduce COVID transmission rates in our communities.”