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Federal researchers examined coronavirus cases in a Georgia school district and their findings suggest that educators had a central role in transmitting the virus in schools.
Teachers and other school staff members “might play a central role” in transmission of Covid-19 in schools without consistent mask-wearing and social distancing, and vaccinating them could help accelerate a safe return to the classroom, according to new research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The report examines Covid-19 spread in eight elementary schools in a single district in Georgia from Dec. 1, 2020 through Jan. 22, a period that included 24 in-person learning days. The number of Covid-19 cases in the county increased by nearly 300% during that time period, researchers found, including nine clusters of three or more cases that involved 13 educators and 32 students across six schools.
All but one of those clusters “involved at least one educator and probably educator-to-student transmission,” the report said. “All nine transmission clusters involved less than ideal physical distancing, and five involved inadequate mask use by students. Educators were central to in-school transmission networks.”
The study, published Monday, said that providing Covid-19 vaccines for educators has the potential to reduce in-school transmission of the virus and could minimize interruptions to in-person learning.
Public health investigators who visited the schools for the study identified a handful of problems with the Covid-19 mitigation measures in place.
For example, plastic dividers had been placed between desks, but students were still sitting less than 3 feet apart, half of the recommended minimum distance of 6 feet. More distancing was not possible, they reported, “because of the high number of in-person students and classroom layouts.”
A lack of adherence to the school district’s mask mandate “likely contributed to spread in five clusters,” the report said. And transmission likely also occurred during “small group instruction sessions, in which educators worked in close proximity to students.”
The report’s release comes a week after the CDC issued new guidance on how to safely reopen schools for in-person learning amid fluctuating virus case counts. Recommendations include strict mitigation measures (among them, universal mask-wearing, physical distancing and frequent hand-washing), phased reopening and monitoring community spread in surrounding areas.
That guidance also recommends that teachers be vaccinated “as soon as supply allows,” but doesn’t deem it essential to reopening. This week’s report echoes that recommendation, noting that vaccinating educators is “not required for reopening schools,” but “should be considered as an additional mitigation measure" when possible.
Precautions like mask wearing and physical distancing will remain necessary in schools even after educators are vaccinated, the report concludes, because most children are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
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