Study: Texas school reopenings led to ‘substantial’ COVID spread

Community COVID rates were already high when many schools reopened last fall, researchers determined
By: | May 14, 2021

Many experts have touted the limited spread of COVID in public schools, but one study appears to have identified the opposite phenomenon in Texas.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky tracked 43,000 additional COVID cases and 800 deaths during the first two months of in-person learning in Texas last fall.

These cases accounted for 12% of the state’s total and 17% of its deaths during the eight weeks after reopening, according to the study, “School Reopenings, Mobility, and COVID-19 Spread: Evidence from Texas,” published by the university’s Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise and the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“While previous research from the Centers for Disease Control suggested schools can open safely if community spread is low and mitigation protocols are followed, this does not necessarily mean that schools will open safely,” said Charles Courtemanche, an associate professor of economics and the director of the Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise.

“Our research suggests that school openings can lead to substantial COVID-19 spread—in at least some cases,” Courtemanche said.

In searching for explanations, researchers determined spread was already high in Texas communities where and when schools brought students back. Also, social distancing was difficult in the many buildings that reopened with nearly full in-person attendance, the researchers said.

Adults who returned to work and began interacting more with each other last fall may also have played a role in the spread, the study says.

Cellphone-based mobility data showed adults in neighborhoods with large numbers of school-age children began spending an additional 30 minutes outside their homes as schools reopened.

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“What is often overlooked in the debate around school openings is that schools could both have direct and indirect effects of COVID-19 spread,” Aaron Yelowitz, a professor of economics, said. “Our analysis suggests that a return to in-person schooling also led to increases in both returning to in-person work and outside-of-home leisure activities by parents.”

Despite increasing vaccination rates in Texas, further COVID prevention strategies should extend beyond schools, study co-author Ron Zimmer said.

“Because changes in adult behavior likely led to increased COVID-19 spread, any mitigation strategy associated with school opening needs to consider changes in adult behaviors as well,” Zimmer said.

“The study just provides one piece of evidence, and the results of increased spread needs to be weighed against the possible significant benefits of increased learning and social and emotional development among children from opening schools,” Zimmer said.