Bringing students back into school buildings for in-person classes does not seem to spur significant coronavirus transmission, Washington state health officials say, suggesting that buildings can reopen so long as strong health and safety measures are in place.
The statement from Lacy Fehrenbach, one of the state’s top health officials, fits with emerging data from inside and outside the United States which hints that schools — particularly elementary schools — aren’t driving coronavirus spread.
The state has logged 36 coronavirus outbreaks in schools since the start of the pandemic, including 26 since Sept. 1, Fehrenbach, deputy secretary of health for COVID-19 response at the Washington State Department of Health, said during a media briefing Wednesday. An Oct. 22 report from DOH suggests that 10 of those outbreaks were reported between Oct. 10 and Oct. 17.
Outbreaks include at least two cases among staff or students over two weeks, and signs that transmission happened on school grounds. Nearly all of the recorded outbreaks included fewer than five cases, Fehrenbach said.
Only 57 school districts, which together serve about 3% of Washington students, are serving more than three-quarters of their students face to face, state data suggests.
Statewide, coronavirus cases are on the rise, with infections and hospitalizations increasing on both the eastern and western sides of the state.
Data collection efforts on coronavirus in U.S. schools is fragmented, and research on coronavirus transmission in school settings is still unsettled. Many states aren’t systematically logging school case counts. One of the largest national databases tracking school outbreaks, run by Brown University economist Emily Oster, relies on crowdsourced reports from individual districts. To date, no large, representative studies have offered conclusive evidence on the role of schools in transmission.
But state officials say the available data is encouraging.
“We are seeing promising signs and hopeful signs that we can open schools safely, with good health and safety measures in place,” Fehrenbach said. “This is similar to what we’re seeing when we look at national data.”
Health officials didn’t describe during the Wednesday briefing how they are collecting school data. They also did not report the total number of coronavirus cases tied to schools. A spokesperson for the DOH clarified Thursday that local health jurisdictions are sending DOH information about school outbreaks but not individual cases. State education officials have said they also aren’t keeping a log.
But some districts that have reopened for face-to-face learning are regularly updating and posting case counts on their own. For instance, Moses Lake had confirmed 26 cases this school year, as of Thursday. Other districts, such as Clarkston, are posting weekly updates on current cases. Clarkston reported five current cases last week.
But these figures and the data the state has collected provide a limited snapshot of coronavirus risk in Washington schools. Because so few districts are teaching face to face, it’s unclear if the pattern would hold up if more districts were to reopen.
State officials also didn’t describe whether outbreaks they’ve logged happened in places with high coronavirus prevalence in the community. So it’s unclear whether these incidents support or refute a growing body of evidence suggesting schools should stay closed when local case counts are high.
Fehrenbach reiterated that districts should be cautious when opening buildings, and cited the state’s long list of requirements for schools that choose to reopen. Students and staff must wear masks, stay distanced from each other on campus, and screen for coronavirus symptoms.
Epidemiologists and education experts say there’s no perfect formula for when to reopen schools. But many are calling for a more concerted data collection effort to help drive reopening efforts.
This week, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education in Seattle, Robin Lake, called on the U.S. Department of Education to lead a coronavirus data collection effort. Lake and her colleagues are spearheading national research on school district reopening plans.
Other researchers say they are seeking funding for coronavirus studies that focus on schools.
“At the point that we are at in the pandemic, it’s actually pretty amazing how little solid data we have in terms of absolute numbers of counts,” said Brandon Guthrie, assistant professor of global health and epidemiology at the University of Washington. “The solid data you need at a population level to say what role schools are playing,”
With some exceptions, he said, the available data doesn’t suggest “really large numbers of school-based transmission.” But again, the data is murky. Case counts from places that reopened while community transmission was high only tell part of the story: High numbers in schools may reflect transmission levels in the community, but case counts alone don’t definitively elucidate the role of schools.
Seattle Times reporter Elise Takahama contributed to this report.