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In-Person K-12 Classes Don’t Fuel COVID-19 Outbreaks, Study Says

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Editor’s note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

In-person classes at K-12 schools don’t appear to lead to more coronavirus outbreaks as compared with online-only learning, according to a new CDC study.

At the beginning of December 2020, COVID-19 cases in counties with in-person schooling were similar to the rates in counties with only virtual classes, researchers wrote in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

“CDC recommends that K-12 schools be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures have been employed and the first to reopen when they can do so safely,” the CDC COVID-19 Emergency Response Team wrote.

The research team analyzed COVID-19 trends among children, teens, and young adults between March 1 and December 12. During that time, more than 2.8 million cases were reported for ages 0-24, with 57% in ages 18-24. The number of positive cases was lowest among ages 10 and younger.

The smaller number of cases among younger children could suggest that the risk for COVID-19 transmission in elementary schools and child care centers “might be lower” than in high schools, colleges, and universities, they wrote.

The research team also compared the trends with adult cases. Based on the data, increased cases in adults weren’t preceded by more cases among children. However, more cases in young adults (ages 18-24) did precede increases in other age groups, “suggesting that young adults might contribute more to community transmission than do younger children,” they wrote.

As of December 7, about 62% of K-12 school districts offered either full or partial in-person learning, but there have been few reports of outbreaks at schools, the authors wrote. Counties with in-person classes had about 401 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, as compared with the 418 cases per 100,000 people in counties offering online-only education.

At the same time, they added, widespread transmission in the community likely leads to more outbreaks at schools, especially if students don’t wear masks or follow social distancing guidelines. Several US school districts with routine surveillance of in-school cases reported a lower number of cases than the surrounding counties, they found.

“For schools to operate safely to accommodate in-person learning, communities should fully implement and strictly adhere to multiple mitigation strategies, especially universal and proper masking, to reduce COVID-19 incidence within the community as well as within schools to protect students, teachers, and staff members,” the CDC team wrote.

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