Here's what recent research tells us about all of that and more:
Schools have not been a major source of community Covid-19 spread.
Early on in the pandemic, it made sense to close schools. But as some school buildings reopened for in-person learning while others remained closed for much longer, we’ve seen more and more evidence that Covid-19 has not spread uncontrollably in schools. Instead, case levels in schools tend to mirror those in the larger community: when there’s more Covid out there, there will be more cases in schools, but schools themselves aren’t generally fueling the spread.
Worn consistently, masks reduce spread in schools.
A recent study in Pediatrics looked at how masking policies affect in-school transmission, while taking variables like vaccination rates, levels of community spread, and district size into account, too. They found that districts with mask mandates saw lower rates of secondary infections in schools: Schools with optional masking policies had more than 3 times as many instances of in-school spread as those with mandatory masking. (Related to the point above, though, the study also found that in all districts, transmission in schools was quite low; it was just even lower in schools with required masks.)
Vaccines protect students from severe illness.
Covid-19 vaccines are now available to everyone, including infants and children over 6 months old. While children remain at generally low risk of severe illness from the virus, children can and do still get very sick sometimes—and vaccination does a great job of minimizing those risks. (Plus, some schools and extracurricular providers require proof of vaccination for children.)
Other safety precautions, especially ventilation and air filtration, are important, too.
Even as masks are becoming less consistent in schools, parents should feel reassured that other efforts to limit Covid spread—like using rapid tests and improving ventilation and air filtration also help keep the virus under control in schools. (Experts point out that buildings should use real HEPA filters or those with a high filtration rating, called MERV-13 or higher; otherwise they might not do much good.)
Remote and disrupted learning has put students behind in their learning—and the effects are worse for students who were already more vulnerable.
While school closures haven’t had a major impact on keeping Covid rates down, they have had a major impact on students. And not in a good way. In Massachusetts, 37,000 more children scored in the lowest achievement level for math, compared to 2019. Students have fallen dramatically behind in reading, particularly Black and Latino students (whose schools were more likely to be closed than white students’) and English language learners. In many cases, students with disabilities lost access to supports they were legally entitled to, and many parents have seen declines in their children’s progress. And we’ve seen higher levels of depression and anxiety among young people, too.
The bottom line?
The good news is that even when Covid rates go up again, schools are pretty safe spaces. Based on everything we know now, the science doesn’t support further full-scale school closures—although there might still be occasional classroom shutdowns in our future, and having a remote learning option for high-risk students or those who have to miss school due to illness makes a lot of sense.
At this point, school districts should be spending their Covid recovery funds upgrading ventilation and air filtration systems (if they haven’t done so already), hiring more great teachers and social workers, and making sure all students have access to the academic and mental health supports they need to get back on track.
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