Reopening Indiana schools last fall did contribute to the spread of COVID-19 cases, a new study found, but not as much as researchers expected to find.
The study from a team of Indiana University researchers, doctors, statisticians and educators, found that in-person school did result in additional cases of COVID-19 but the number of cases attributable to in-person school was very low compared to total new cases.
“Opening schools we knew would have risk,” Dr. Gabriel Bosslet, associate professor of clinical medicine in the IU school of medicine, said. “People would be infected and people would spread the virus. No one knew the extent of that risk.”
So, the team tried to quantify it. And what they found was that in-person school — from when schools began bringing students back into classrooms in July and August — contributed to new COVID-19 cases, but relatively very few. Every 10% increase in in-person schooling, the study found, was associated with a daily increase in cases in the county equal to 0.336 per 100,000 people. Or, roughly one new case per 100,000 every three days. Statewide, the number of daily new cases were 10 per 100,000 residents at the start of the study period and rose to 19 new cases per 100,000 residents by the end.
“While we did show it does increase the spread, it’s really quite small compared to the overall spread of the virus and to what we anticipated,” Bosslet said. “I was surprised at the relatively low number of cases that were associated with in-person schooling.”
Of course, this information was not available when school leaders were trying to decide how, or even if, to reopen school for in-person instruction last summer and into the fall. But while the state provided some guidance for schools, it came late — after many had reopening plans in place — and did not dictate anything. The decision was almost entirely up to individual school districts.
“The only certain thing was that everyone had strong opinions and there was very little data,” Bosslet said. “We realized it was going to be left to individual school corporations to make the decision for themselves. It was the perfect way to observe what happens.”
So the team reached out to every school district to find out what percentage of their students were learning in person and then matched cases reported out by the state at the county level 28 days later. A county was only included in the study if researchers were able to determine the in-person attendance for at least half of the students in that county. While the team didn’t hear back from all schools, they did hear back from enough to include 73 of Indiana’s 92 counties. Those included represented more than 90% of Hoosier students.
At the time, just under 60% of students in those counties were attending in-person school. Each 10% increase in in-person attendance would result in an additional 20 new cases per day 28 days later or an estimated 561 total new cases throughout the 73 counties over the course of the study — July 12 to Oct. 6. That compares to more than 70,000 total cases in those counties during the same time and an average of 805 new cases per day.
Conversely, had all school districts in the counties included in the study decreased their in-person instruction by 10 percentage points, there would have been an estimated 469 fewer total cases during the study period.
The decision to reopen schools consumed school districts and divided communities last summer and fall. Because the decision wasn’t solely about the risk of spreading COVID-19 in classrooms, it was also about the risk of not reopening schools. What would happen to kids academic, physical, social and emotional well-being if school buildings continued to be closed?
“We all know what the benefits of going to school are for kids,” said Micah Pollak, another of the study authors and associate professor of economics in IU Northwest's school of business and economics. “But we don’t know what the costs are. Your imagination runs wild, from a superspreader event to maybe it won’t be so bad. There was a lot of tension.
"Parents want what’s best for their kids, but if they don’t know what the costs and benefits are, it’s hard to make a decision.”
Those risks, the risks of not reopening, loomed large for Jim Snapp, superintendent of Brownsburg Community Schools.
“Research talks about the spread of COVID," Snapp said, “but it doesn't talk about student mental health, academic progress … student safety. So this was not really a binary choice.”
Brownsburg reopened for in-person in late July, but gave parents a choice to keep their kids home and remain in a remote environment. Snapp said they worked with the Hendricks County Health Department to make sure school was as safe as it could be with the limited information they had. And now, he said, the data they didn’t have then is backing up the choices they made.
“In hindsight, I think we made wise decisions,” he said.
While a minority started the school year remotely, most were like Brownsburg and did bring back at least some students. The number of schools opened has fluctuated throughout the school year, though. More moved to remote learning in the late fall and winter when cases across the state spiked dramatically.
The state required schools to report COVID-19 cases among their students, teachers and staff members but most cases, state health officials have said, were likely contracted outside of school settings. So far, schools have reported nearly 45,000 cases.
Researchers are quick to point out that the results of the study do not necessarily speak to what would happen under different conditions. Without the same precautions — masking, social distancing, regular hand washing and sanitizing — and during times with greater levels of community spread, like Indiana saw in the winter, the results would likely be different.
But with vaccination rates on the rise and more data like this available, the hope is that decisions about what school looks like this coming fall won’t be quite so fraught.
“Earlier this year I was very concerned about it," Pollak said. "I feel a lot more comfortable. There’s a lot of evidence that in-person schooling can be done safely and it’s not that hard.”