- Experts say schools can be the perfect setting for a “superspreader” event of COVID-19.
- They note that the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 among children is rising across the United States.
- They say schools need to put in preventive measures such as masks, physical distancing, staggered class schedules, and ventilation.
- They add that the amount of COVID-19 spread in the town where a school is located is also an important factor.
We’ve seen COVID-19 spread like wildfire through some bars, churches, and other public gathering places. Now that many schools are reopening, parents are holding their breath.
Experts tell Healthline that schools — especially those situated in states where cases are rising — can be the perfect setting for what’s called a superspreading event.
“There are some estimates that at a 1,000-student school you might have between 10 and 15 students show up on the first day who are infectious and that’s pretty representative of a typical high school,” said Dr. Marybeth Sexton, a former public school teacher who is now an assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Emory University in Georgia.
“If you don’t have masking and distancing regulations in place, and each one of those people goes on to infect two to three other people, and then they infect two to three other people, and they infect two to three other people, very quickly you’re going to have a situation where you’re going to have to shut a school down,” Sexton told Healthline.
As students in Georgia, Florida, and other states embark on an uncertain school year, Healthline asked experts where superspreading events typically occur, just how soon it will be clear whether schools have succeeded or failed in their reopening efforts, and how likely is it that schools will become superspreaders.
The perfect setting for spread
One of the earliest examples of a superspreading event took place at a March choir practiceTrusted Source in Skagit County, Washington, where 52 people subsequently developed COVID-19 — three choir members were hospitalized and two died.
The list of examples goes on and includes children’s camps and schools.
In fact, more than 97,000 children tested positive for COVID-19 in the final 2 weeks of July, according to a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.
In addition, the number of children diagnosed with COVID-19 in Florida has more than doubled in the past month.
“(School) is an indoor setting. It is an area where lots of people congregate, where there is shouting and yelling and close contact,” said Maureen Miller, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist and adjunct associate professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York. “These are exactly the conditions that we basically closed down for the rest of the country — political conventions, casinos, offices. It’s the same scenario, only it’s with children.”
Sexton explained that superspreading events in places such as restaurants or churches tend to have a few things in common.
“(If) you do get unlucky enough to have somebody who is particularly contagious, and then you get a lot of people in a small space that’s not well ventilated and they don’t have masks on,” she said. “Then you really could infect an entire classroom if you were looking at this in a school setting.”
Exponential spread through a student body and the faculty can happen when people come to school who are already infected because of spread in the community.
If safety measures aren’t in place, “you do have the potential within a classroom to have a superspreading event, where an overwhelming majority of the people get infected,” Sexton said.
“It’s a huge experiment that we’re going to risk our children to see what happens,” Miller added.
Indeed, some schools that opened this month have subsequently closed again.
Last week, a viral photo put the spotlight on a school in Paulding County, Georgia, where students were seen crammed into hallways between classes.
Over the weekend, the school announced it would close for 2 days after nine people tested positive for the virus.
In addition, 260 employees in Georgia’s largest school district have either tested positive for the virus or were exposed after an in-person planning day.
In New Jersey, a summer preschool program closed after two employees tested positive.
Even as these stories fill the news cycle, New York’s governor announced schools there will open for the 2020 school year, citing how every region is “well below our COVID infection limit.”
It’s a decision that has everyone wondering how the big city will fare.
“New York City is actually pretty low. It has a pretty low positivity rate, one of the lowest in the country right now,” said Miller. “I would not do a full reopen of any school, definitely mixed model, some virtual learning and some in person. But with all these caveats, it’s staggered, there’s social distancing, and once an uptick is observed then you have to decide (whether to close).”